The Secret to Talking to Kids About Your Mistakes

When Sal Raichbach’s 16-year-old daughter told him she wanted to get a tattoo, she brought along her brother to help plead her case. Together, the adolescent duo ganged up on their dad, arguing that he would be a hypocrite to say no because he had a tattoo as well — the old “do as I say, not as I do” deal. But the young Raichbachs faced a more difficult challenge than other kids might in a similar position. Sal Raichbach is a clinical psychologist who has spent over 20 years counseling parents with substance use and abuse histories on how to talk to their kids about mistakes. He knows where the hypocrisy ends and wisdom earned through experience begins.

“As parents, we always have to think about leading by example, but who thinks about that when they are young?” says Raichnach. “We don’t think about what we’re going to answer to when we’re fathers and others ourselves.”

For the caretakers of young children, their first tattoo is probably not within their purview. However, parents who discuss their mistakes openly with their kids help prepare them for the real world, which is brimming with potential regrets. The goal, Raichnach explains, is to show kids that having made mistakes actually makes one wiser and better at decision making, which is a skill many people develop after their teenage years. 

Raichnach spoke to Fatherly about getting out ahead of embarrassing stories and helping young people learn from mistakes already in the rearview.

Parents of toddlers are obviously not going to tell them about how they used to smoke pot, but how can these moms and dads start mentally preparing to talk about these mistakes when their kids are younger?

From a psychological perspective, it’s difficult. Because you did it and, presumably, turned out OK, you don’t want them to think there’s a good chance they can do it and be OK. It’s very conflicting and that’s why it always comes back to the individual relationship between the parent and the child. But the research shows that honest conversations almost always have a positive effect on kid’s choices, but it does stress that there are limits to the information you should offer. But if you go by the evidence, everyone points to honesty with limitations to what is being said.

Setting limits seems to be especially important when talking about mistakes. How can parents strike a balance between saying too little and saying too much?

There’s a big difference between telling them about 20 years ago when you were growing up you had a hard time discussing things with your parents, so you turned to peer influences. And that they never have to feel like that and they can always come to you. There’s a big difference between that and telling them about the time you shot up.

Aside from not glorifying the gory details, what other things should parents be careful about? For instance, is a child’s age and maturity level something to consider? Is there such thing as too young?

There’s really no specific age, There are cultural differences with age and maturity and some families are more open, and some are not. It’s best to be proactive and expect it’s going to happen. Unless you have a 3- or 4-year-old, it won’t happen for a few years. But if you have a kid 8 and older and know your mistakes could come up, why not prepare for it? You don’t have to be caught off guard when it’s something you can think of ahead of time.

What are some warning signs that parents should be talking about mistakes with their kids, but are not? What clues or feedback could a child give them?

Here’s a warning sign that you should be talking about it — if a kid comes up to you and asks you. Especially with drugs and alcohol, some of it can be based on what they hear in school, or through other kids and their families, or even through song lyrics in certain types of music. Other times there’s something going on in the home. As a provider, we’re not shy from exposing children to education about signs if someone is under the influence of drugs. And if a kid connects something said by a professional to something going on in the home, then they might get curious and ask a family member — even if it’s not the parent and someone else in the family.

Context seems especially crucial when it comes to discussing past mistakes about drugs and alcohol. What should moms and dads be aware of or careful about considering before talking about this specifically?

It’s funny, alcohol does not get spoken about in the same way as drugs. So when your kid asks you, or you talk about your past, to teach them what to do and what not to do based on life experiences, while holding a beer can or a glass of wine, it’s kind of an oxymoron. You’re doing it. So it’s not even about the time of when to discuss it with kids, it’s what you’re discussing, and alcohol and drugs are being addressed very differently. In certain cultures, wine is an acceptable drug.

That said, drugs and alcohol can’t be the only mistakes that are important to discuss. What are some other blunders parents may want to bring up with their kids?

It’s every circumstance in every realm of life, not just drugs and alcohol. We talk about money, we talk about sex, we talk about bullying. Talk about anything and everything that can be framed in terms of “if I knew then what I knew now.”

So, what do you know now that you wish you knew then? How do you approach these conversations with your own kids?

I’m a single father. I myself, am divorced. My son is about to turn 13 and be exposed to a lot more things and just because I’m a professional doesn’t mean I know anything better or worse than anyone else. When I thought he was being bullied, I told him that I know what it’s like — to have to dress a certain way, or ask my parents to spend a certain amount of money on clothes because otherwise kids won’t accept you. I’m teaching him through my experiences to not follow anybody. Be yourself and don’t worry about the clothes you wear or the brand name, because that’s not going to make you anything in life other than a follower and not a leader.  If you had a bad experience turn it into a positive one, you can use that as an example with your children. Then it’s not a mistake; it’s turning a negative into a positive.

If honesty with discretion is truly the best policy here, then what are the consequences of not sharing your mistakes with your kids? Why does disclosure matter?

The consequence that at some point it may be too late.  If you have a good and healthy relationship with your child, you don’t want to wait too long to establish open, honest communication. If you wait too long, a child may get used to figuring it out for themselves and not trust their caregivers are right.  

There seems to be a big difference between being dishonest with your kids, and withholding information that may not be good for them when it comes to talking about mistakes. What is the difference and why is that important?

It’s important for the welfare of the child. When full disclosure is not appropriate, I don’t see that as a negative thing. You’re protecting them. Lying is when a kid asks you a question and you protect yourself by telling them false statements. Omitting details, or putting a conversation off for a better time or place when you’re better prepared, is definitely different than lying because a child can catch you in a lie. Or if you admit it too late, a kid might resent and not trust you.