7 Dangers of Keeping Family Secrets

Family Secrets

If you’re like most people you probably have 5 deep dark secrets stashed away in your brain that you’ve never shared with anyone else. That’s according to a 2017 study on secrecy that analyzed over 130,000 secrets. What’s your secret? Maybe it’s about your finances, a child’s adoption status, an illness or autoimmune disease, mental health issues, sexual orientation, gender identity, political beliefs, criminal behavior, past physical or sexual abuse, an extramarital affair, or any one of thousands of other things people keep to themselves.

What does all this secret keeping do to us? Thinking about those skeletons in the closet causes stress…lots of it! It’s the same for family secrets—hiding mounting debt and impending bankruptcy from the kids, enlisting a sibling in staying quiet about getting in trouble at school, asking a child not to tell when they catch you in a romantic embrace with someone other than your spouse, and the list goes on and on. In general, people stay mum about things in an effort to avoid punishment, shame, or judgment.

What’s so wrong with family secrets?

Keeping family secrets can be extremely harmful, leading to anxiety, shame, trust issues, resentment, stress, and sometimes to the use of addictive substances as a coping mechanism. Click To Tweet


Keeping family secrets creates a toxic environment that poisons the whole family. It can be extremely harmful, leading to anxiety, shame, trust issues, resentment, stress, and sometimes to the use of addictive substances as a coping mechanism. An earlier study on secrets in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that thinking about hidden confidences makes physical tasks seem harder. It’s as if the secrets you’re holding on to make you feel like you’re carrying a heavy burden that makes everything else more difficult. Keeping things to yourself can also lead to physical symptoms related to stress and anxiety, such as headaches, digestive issues, and muscle tension.


Not all family secrets are the same. There are several types of secrets, and they can have different effects on your emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being. Here are 7 types of secrets and the consequences they cause.

1. Healthy secrets

Some family secrets are actually beneficial. Think about an inside joke with your dad, a secret handshake with your sibling, or planning a surprise party for your spouse. These types of secrets promote bonding and stronger relationships.

2. Unhealthy secrets

Confidential matters that stem from taboo topics, criminal behavior, moral or ethical violations, or breaking rules can cause a breakdown in the family dynamics.

3. Solo secrets

When one person alone hides something from the rest of the family—say you are in a forbidden relationship, have mounting credit card debt, or have an addiction—it builds walls around you.

4. Parents keeping secrets from each other

When spouses hide things from one another it throws off the family dynamic. Whether it’s an extramarital affair, a shopping or gambling addiction, or questioning one’s sexual orientation, it introduces an unwelcome element into the relationship. The fear of having the significant other discover the secret causes increased friction in the relationship and can lead to marital conflict.

5. Keeping secrets from the kids

Parents who try to hide things from their kids—a health condition, a pending divorce, the fact that the child is adopted—often aren’t fooling the little ones. Children are highly sensitive and intuitive, and they may sense that something is going on in the household. These secrets are especially troublesome. Although youngsters may not know what the secret is, they often think that they are somehow responsible for the tension in the air. They take the blame for the problems and are filled with guilt, but they feel powerless to change the situation.

6. Split-family secrets

When only some of the family members are in the know about something while others remain in the dark, it splinters the family unit. For example, think of a mom confiding in her teenage daughter that she’s considering filing for divorce but pressing her to keep it to herself. This makes the daughter feel uncomfortable in the presence of her father, feeling like she is being disloyal to him for not saying anything but at the same time feeling bound to keep her mom’s secret. This may cause the girl to distance herself from her father or create feelings of resentment toward her mother. In more painful instances, there may be secrets surrounding physical or sexual abuse that is kept from others.

7. All-in-the-family secrets

Many family secrets are shared among all the members but kept stashed away from any outsiders. Examples of this include a dad who drinks too much, a mom who has psychotic episodes, or a child who has a learning disability. The pressure placed on all family members to keep quiet about the issues may lead to social isolation or trouble developing friendships.


Living with family secrets can be hard. Dealing with them head-on can be even harder. If a hidden secret comes to light, it can cause even greater rifts within the family. On the other hand, if you want to air your family’s dirty laundry, tread lightly. Think about the goals you have for addressing long-hidden issues. Is it because you want to create a healthier, more honest relationship that will enhance the family unit? Or are you motivated by revenge? Or do you want to prove you’ve been right about something for years?

If a secret has been revealed or if you decide you want to have more openness with your relatives, you may want to consider doing it in a family therapy setting. With a professional therapist who can be a calming presence, you may feel safer exploring issues that have been stowed away for years or even decades. Traditional talk therapy may not be enough in all cases because there is one factor that can’t be fixed by simply hashing things out.


The sad truth about many family secrets related to bad behavior or acting inappropriately is that parents, siblings, and children often blame each other for these issues. Or they view their family member with disdain because they assume they have a character flaw or personality defect. It’s easy to say someone is bad, it’s harder to ask why.

But investigating why can reveal so much. Over 30 years of brain SPECT imaging at Amen Clinics shows that bad behavior is typically related to underlying brain dysfunction, not to a moral failing. When family members see a loved one’s damaged brain, it promotes understanding and forgiveness. At Amen Clinics, we have seen thousands of families reconnect and find a healing path forward when they realize that the secrets they have been hiding actually lie in brain health problems.

Marital conflict and other relationship issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. My grandmother had an NDE after a car accident that involved the whole family. She had head injuries and many broken bones. For a long time her life was hanging. Mother’s pelvis was broken, her sister also had broken bones. The father was able to go back to work fairly quickly.
    The trauma for my generation was that I too had an NDE experience. Mother never processed her mother’s NDE (no one ever spoke of these experiences)
    So she didn’t want to deal with any of my experiences. “We don’t talk about that, it didn’t happen, it wasn’t real…” were how my experiences were dealt with.
    So, yes, this makes perfect sense, it was as if a good part of me was neither acknowledged nor accepted..

    Comment by Janet — July 9, 2021 @ 3:36 AM

  2. So informative and necessary. Dr Amen digs deep and he’s always honest. Maybe, he believes in humanity, I struggle with it but am mostly positive. By all his education, research and experience he sees more then surface stuff. Thank you Dr Amen for sharing your knowledge

    Comment by rosemary lempke — July 9, 2021 @ 7:14 AM

  3. My cousin was suspicious that my father was her father. So she confided in 2 of my sisters. They kept it a secret for a year. They were going to have a DNA test done to determine if she was our half sister. Should they have told the other siblings what was up and not hide it from them.?

    Comment by Brenda Scott — March 16, 2022 @ 10:32 AM

  4. I have 3 adopted siblings 2 brothers 1 sister, I am only bio child.
    My sister and I have had good & bad times. We stopped talking 10 yrs ago.
    Now she has serious cancer and has told brothers & my kids but has told them not to tell me.
    My son & granddaughter did tell me.
    But I have weekly video calls with 1 brother & my Mom who is in long term care.
    Do I let him know I know? Or stop the calls because Mom has no clue I'm even there? And how do I talk to my brother without letting him know I know?
    I'd like to walk away from them all to be honest

    Comment by Gwen — February 6, 2023 @ 12:36 PM

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