AT A TIME when the social sciences, spewing forth statistical jargon from the latest computer printouts, seem to yield few convincing explanations -- not to mention answers -- to pressing human dilemmas, Thomas Cottle brings to the study of children and families the dramatic power and wisdom of the great novelist or playwright. Reading Children's Secrets, the 20th book from this unconventional investigative psychologist, evoked immediately for me the insights and satisfactions gleaned from Virginia Woolf or Tennessee Williams.

As a matter of fact, I found myself scurrying to my bookshelf and reading again Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, struck by the similarity of themes dramatically rendered both in it and in Cottle's nonfiction study of the insidious damage to children who are forced to live the charade of maintaining a wide variety of family secrets. In the play, no one in Big Daddy's family talks honestly with anyone about enything. Son Brick is filled with disgust at what he calls "mendacity," including his own. Big Daddy shares his contempt for all "the crap, the lies." In one powerful scene father and son finally strip away the lies surrounding Big Daddy's cancer and Brick's traumatic secret involving his best friend, who committed suicide after making a telephoned confession of homosexual love for him. Without confronting these fundamental issues which had enveloped their lives, father and son could not speak honestly or meaningfully with each other about anything.

The individual stories recounted by Cottle of children who, as forced secret keepers, graphically describe their feelings of pain, hypocrisy, shame and dream-like confusion, have the same dramatic intensity and truth-revealing insights about their most human longings for family love, communication and stability.

I have emphasized the similarities between a 25-year-old play and a psychologist's new studies because Cottle consciously and deliberately utilizes the techniques and style of the journalist, novelist and dramatist as his means of trying to make a contribution to man's understanding of his most perplexing problems of the heart, mind and soul.

He calls his rich, detailed descriptions of families "life studies." They include long monologues in which the children speak at great length in their own words about the complex effects upon them as forced secret keepers about family woes ranging from marital infidelity, wife-beating, incest and parental desertion to downfalls precipitated by alcoholism, mental illness and unemployment. Cottle does not use his families as stick characters, as reductive case histories to make a point about some standard theory of psychology. His subjects are fullblown in all their rich complexity, and they compel us to identify with them or to think our own thoughts about the human predicament.

There is a story of Janie Sutleworth, a girl who has been told, by a mother who cannot face up to the fact that her husband had deserted and abandoned his family, that her father had died. When Janie actually sees her father and mother holding a furtive discussion in a car, her grandmother tells her the truth but says the secrecy must continue because her mother would lose face if the truth be know. "You spend your life tiptoeing around everybody," reflects Janie about her own isolation and confusion. "Sometimes you can't remember who you told what to, or who you aren't supposed to say anything to."

There is Willie Fryer, whose mother confides to her children that she is leaving her family to pursue a career, but they must not tell the father. Finally when he is told, father and mother jointly swear the children to secrecy, so the family can keep up appearances, with father and mother occasionally appearing together at social occasions. In the ultimate commentary upon our voyeuristic society, the mother tells Willie he must secretly let her know how he feels about the unusual family split so as to contribute to the book she is writing about her liberation.

"The big secret," says a bereft, lonely Wilie, "is the charade, the all-night, all-day drama playing over at Willow Road. The people are real, the events are real. Only the emotions are fictitious to protect the innocent, as if anyone could be innocent after what's been going on."

In all these families, secret-keeping may start with a seemingly benevolent rationale of "keeping the problem from the children" or protecting the family from the outside gossip, but in almost all cases children are well aware of what is happening around them at home, and there is only the confusing hypocrisy and charade of trying "to conceal the unconcelable."

There is Roscoe Ettinger, whose mother's blatant infidelity is an unconcealable secret known by all and discussed by no one in the family. Roscoe doesn't dare ask questions. "Does she know I know?" he wonders. "I think not, but then again, she asks me so little about what I do with my life, I have to believe she doesn't ask because she is afraid I might ask her about her life."

Roscoe, like most the other children Cottle writes about, is isolated by secret-keeping, forced to create a mythological view of his family, denied the very essence of childhood needs, that of reaching out to a parent for love, reassurance, comfort and guidance.

There is the Malone family in which the father regularly beats the mother but both parents deny that anything is amiss, covering her bruises and hospital visits with lame explanations. In one incredible scene the entire family watches a drama about wife-beating on television, at the conclusion of which the mother calmly announces, "it's past bedtime." No one will discuss this central family trauma, "which means that we can't talk about anything serious," laments young Peter Malone.

Cottle does not offer any pat theories about the psychological effects of secret-keeping, and certainly no pat solutions, nor the suggestion that facing the truth about cruel family issues will necessarily solve them. But the overwhelming logic of his intense dramatizations is that children are severely damaged by being forced to live in an unreal world in which "seeing is not seeing, hearing is not hearing, knowing is not knowing, speaking is not speaking." His characters cry out not just for honesty in family relationships, but for their own human need for family understanding and love.

Cottle makes a convincing case that forced secret-keeping is translated by children into a need to hold back from any kind of intimate relationships. The reverberations of a family secret spread backward and forward into the time of a child's life, outward into his public experience, inward into the core of this personality. Holding tightly to secrets puts the children into a state of psychological isolation.

Says Cottle: "The lie, literally the inability to tell someone the truth, not only affects the perception of the world as being corrupt or counterfiet, but colors the children's own sense of themselves. So, secretly, children view themselves as corrupt or counterfeit."

Cottle's children, burdened by their incomprehensible secrets, develop stammers, become child-beaters themselves, stop learning in shcool, even commit suicide. Yet, in all this grimness, he can offer compelling stories, illuminating his optimistic view that man always has the possibility for redemption, including the power to alter his own personality.

In one powerful account, young Chico Adrian is tormented by the secrecy his mother has imposed on the mental illness of his father, refusing to disclose his whereabouts when he is hospitalized. Chico gradually creates his own madness and has himself committed to the hospital in which he thinks his father is confined. Father and son are reunited there, and in a moving scene, communicate their mutual need for each other and fulfill a pledge to have no more secrets.

In a similar vein, the authors of Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family have probed and accumulated a lot of evidence on the extent of violence in our homes and causes for it. Sociologists Murray Strauss and Richard Gelles, assisted by Suzanne Steinmetz, have made a valuable contribution in their study of 2,200 families, revealing that wife-beating -- and yes, husband-beating and siblings beating each other -- are far more common and serious problems than generally realized. Based on an analaysis of their questionnaries, the authors have come up with some useful insights and suggestions:

There is less spouse-beating in those democratic households in which both parents share decision-making power. There is a great need today for ameliorative measures to help victims of family beatings. Shelters for battered women, a workable child-protection system, greater sensitivity and training for police and courts in dealing with family violence, are a few of the suggestions, which now are being advocated with some success by the women's movement and others.

For overall solutions, they contend "what is needed is no less than a restructuring of the relations between family members," including an end to corporal punishment of children to break the cycle of violence, and governmental programs of economic and social support to relieve the stresses of poverty.

It is unfair really to compare these two books, although Cottle certainly would agree, at least tentatively, to Gelles' and Strauss' sociological explanations for family violence. But their compilation of sociological data comes across as one more social science study calling for unlikely utopian change. All of their statistics are ultimately less meaningful than Cottle's searing account of the Sindon family in which the father's unemployment "had become a billowing smokestack and all the Sindons were caught up in the fumes and filth of his bitterness, anger and utter helplessness."

And for those who cannot identify with the poor, recognilition and human understanding may come from Cottle's story of the striving, achieving suburban Cornishes, who demand that their children keep secret family financial reverses, leaving a disgusted young Stephen to conclude: "We've a family that's always put up the perfect act, worn the right clothes, and made ourselves perfect in case the phone rings and America invites us to a come-as-you-are party."