Q&A With a Family Therapist: How Kids Survive Family Secrets

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As details continue to emerge about former Calif. governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s infidelities, many are wondering how the revelations will affect his children — not only the four teenagers he has with estranged wife, Maria Shriver, but also his newly discovered son.

Healthland spoke with Dr. Jill Waterman, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the training director of the UCLA clinic Ties for Families, about family secrets, reintegration and the role that family therapy can play in healing children’s relationships with parents.

Q: A lot of attention has been focused on the Schwarzenegger-Shriver children, but what about the former housekeeper’s son? What would be problematic for him?

A: Children do best when they know the most growing up — when they have the most accurate information about their family and their past. And they often can feel very betrayed if something’s been kept from them. Additionally, a secret [in this case, paternity] can make it seem like the truth is something terrible.

Children trust their parents — they are whom children depend on for the basis of their trust. So when they find out things that their parents have hidden from them, it can feel like a major betrayal. But parents can have really good intentions in not sharing a secret — hoping that it will protect the child — but it can be really terrible if the children find out. In the end, it ends up sort of shaking the foundation of trust. Of course, there is huge variability and it depends on the developmental stage of the child, but it sort of throws the foundations of everything they believe into chaos. Although, certainly, kids can recover from this.

Q: How might parental betrayal manifest in terms of behavior in the kids?

A: You may see things like acting out — emotional symptoms like crying and anger. Or sometimes rejecting feelings toward parents, being really angry at the parent who didn’t tell the truth or held out on them. That can be resolved, but it takes a while. It requires the parent to be open and able to tolerate the reaction of the child.

Often, in general — particularly once kids get to be around adolescence — they’ll have a rejection of the offending parent who lied and protection of the other parent. In the case of Maria, there could be an identification with the parent that was in their situation at the same time — the children might align with her because she didn’t know either. They could take her side.

Q: What about the child’s attitude toward the newly discovered parent?

A: Adoption is a good example here. On the part of the kid, sometimes there’s a real hope, in addition to the sense of betrayal by the parent who didn’t tell you. The hope is that the new parent will change your life in some good way, how they’ll be involved in your life. These are often fantasies that don’t come true.

Q: What about all the media attention in this case? It can’t help.

Of course, that adds a whole other layer: it complicates things in a child’s adjustment. [The housekeeper’s] child grew up around that household, so he might know [what the media scrutiny is like]. Of course, all of the attention is going to make the processing really hard. It’s not what the child needs — they need their own space and time to process. I think it would be helpful to get this child in psychotherapy.

Q: How does the relationship typically evolve between the newly discovered child and the other siblings?

There’s an adjustment and resentment from the other kids toward newly discovered child. I know this mostly through working with adopted people who search for their birth family and discover that they have another family.

Q: You’d think that the alienated child would be the resentful one.

Well, if the focus is on attempting to get the parents attention, all of a sudden there’s a new child to compete with. Though for adopted kids, particularly if the family has other children that stayed with them, there’s really a sense of “Why did you give me up?” Though I don’t think that really applies to this situation.

Q: So what can all three parents do to minimize harm to their children?

It would be really important for the father to be open and accepting to all emotional reactions from the children who grew up in his family. He should work to understand their feelings and at least apologize for the pain [his actions] is causing them. I guess the main thing would be to tolerate the myriad complex feelings they’ll have and to be open to talking about it and getting help. It would be good to get psychotherapy that would involve both family therapy and individual therapy, particularly for the newly discovered son.

Q: Is he the most vulnerable?

Of course, I don’t know any of them so it’s hard to say. But, yes, the child who has newly discovered his father, he has to reassess and recalculate his entire sense of self because he’s finding out that who he thought was his parent is not his parent. Whereas the other kids are still part of a family. But if any of the children are symptomatic or feel the need to talk to somebody separately, that’s great. [The former governor] can certainly afford it!

The main thing is to allow them to have the feelings they’re having and to not try to squash or reassure the child in a way that cuts them off from being able to express what they want to express.

Q: The Schwarzenegger-Shriver children knew the mother of their new sibling. It’s possible they had very close relationships with her growing up.

There aren’t enough of these cases to have a good grasp on what kinds of issues this brings up in a clinical setting. It adds another complexity because in some ways if they didn’t know her, it would be easier to hate her: “Oh, she seduced my dad,” that kind of thing. But because it is someone they know and trust, it may make that part more complex. They know her as a full person. But I’m sure that it also increases the chance that they could be hurt by her. It’s possible they feel betrayed by her as well, in a way they wouldn’t if they didn’t know her.

Q: How would you expect a 17-year-old to process his parent’s betrayal, compared with his 13-year-old sibling?

During the early stages of adolescence, my own clinical experience has been that around that age [young adolescence], kids are very black and white. The parent who betrayed is all bad, and the other is all good. As you develop abstract thinking skills, you are more likely to see all perspectives and to have your own perspective on it. Not that it isn’t devastating always, but the older children are on the road to independence. Their brain has developed to see things from multiple perspectives. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for anybody — the family is splitting up.