How to talk to your child about secret keeping
A curly-haired little moppet cups her hand and whispers into her friend’s ear. They start to giggle, then run towards the playground, the sunlight dancing on their upturned smiling faces.
The perceived “value” of secrets
Secret. The sound of the word rolling off the tongue is just a little bit exciting and mysterious. If something is a secret, it’s important; it has value. Not only does this make it more thrilling to be let in on the secret, it puts those in the know in a position of power.
As an example, when an older child discovers the secret of the tooth fairy, he feels special; he’s now the keeper of the secret while younger siblings are still blissfully unaware Mum and Dad are turning the house upside-down until midnight looking for loose change.
But by their very nature, secrets exclude others. They can hide harmful behaviours and deeds and blur the line between truthfulness and deceit.
Secrets can be safe or unsafe and it’s important that children know the difference. For example, a surprise birthday party for a family member is a safe secret. An unsafe secret is being asked to do something the child is uncomfortable doing and being told to keep quiet about it.
No matter what the secret, Derek McCormack, executive director at Raising Children’s Network, says a child should never feel a secret is a burden they must carry.
Give kids the right amount of information based on their level of understanding and maturity. “Speak their language and answer their questions as they ask them, let their questions guide you as to how much information to share.”
“A child should have access to a trusted adult they can share any secret with if they are unsure about revealing it,” he says. Helping a child understand the concept of secrets and whether they should keep a particular secret or not means teasing out the secret — just a little. Why are they keeping it a secret? Are they afraid? Does knowing something that others don’t make them feel special? Then what are the consequences if they tell? Do they think they’ll get in trouble? Are they worried they’ll be called a tattletale?
A young child should also know that revealing a secret to a caregiver doesn’t mean they’ll get into trouble for spilling the beans.
Confidentiality vs secrets
It’s important that from a young age children learn to respect others’ personal boundaries. There is a difference between secrets and privacy. Kids need to know it’s not OK to tell their friends that a sibling forgot to put their undies on before going to school, for example. While the child might think it’s funny, it’s something that shouldn’t be shared.
Understanding privacy issues is all about establishing healthy relationship skills that will carry through a child’s life; it links in to kindness, empathy, and consideration for how others might be feeling.
Of course, some secrets that relate to adult matters should never be shared with a child. But, for the most part, clinical psychologist Vera Auerbach says parents should be modelling in a transparent way. “Some truths are hard, they might be painful and we might be scared of the consequences, but it’s always better to go with the truth,” she says.
Being protected from the truth can breed anger and resentment. It might not always be apparent right away but can bubble up to the surface decades later.
Auerbach cautions that a secret can eventually take on a life of its own and have a more profound impact over time. “For example, if a child is adopted, the longer the secret is kept, the bigger the secret will become and the harder it will be to tell,” she says.
But, of course, there’s also a balancing act between giving kids too much information about things that can cause anxiety and leaving them out of the loop completely. An example is being excluded when a major event occurs: say, when a parent is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.
Parents think they’re protecting the child by not telling them. But not giving a child enough information can lead to feelings of confusion, hurt and anxiety. They’ll draw their own conclusions from the furious whispers and furtive glances shared between parents.
Kids are egocentric; they’re “me” focused and they may think they’re the cause of the problem. If you do share a big secret, the child will want to know how it will impact on them. How will their life change as a result of it?
Auerbach says the key is to give kids the right amount of information based on their level of understanding and maturity. “Speak their language and answer their questions as they ask them; let their questions guide you as to how much information to share,” she advises.
Toddlers & secrets
The old adage “out of the mouths of babes” is never truer than when it comes to secrets and toddlers. They can’t keep secrets, pure and simple. Complaining about your mother-in-law while your three-year-old is happily playing nearby could just come back and bite you. “My mum says you’ve got a big nose and you poke it into other people’s business,” says your child innocently while your mother-in-law looks as though she’d like to stab you in the eye with her cake fork.
If you’ve been caught out, explain to your child that it’s not polite to share private conversations they might have overheard. And then do your best to apologise to your mother-in-law.
A good rule of thumb with kids of any age and secrets is not to tell them anything you don’t want out in the public domain.
Teens & secrets
Teenagers are big on secrets. Your gappy-toothed smiling five-year-old who shared everything with you can morph overnight into a sullen teen who bans everyone from their bedroom.
McCormack says teenagers are trying to form their own identity, to create their own sense of authenticity that’s separate from the family dynamic. “Adolescents needing more privacy and psychological space is part of their emotional development,” he says. “Becoming an adult is a big job and having space and privacy helps them to face those challenges.”
Respecting your teens’ privacy is also important. Privacy means knocking on bedroom doors before entering and not rifling through school bags or reading text messages.
To encourage your reluctant teen to share, listen without rushing to judgement, start conversations that require more than a yes or no answer and let them know that you are there for them. Timing is also key: tackling important issues after a big day at school will more than likely elicit only a grunt or an eye-roll.
But McCormack also points out that if a teen shuts down communication completely it may be a warning sign that you need to intervene. “Trust in your gut as a parent; it could well be that something is up,” he says. “The big message however is to keep the lines of communication open and do your best not to break your established trust relationship.”
Is it tattling or telling something that should be told?
Being a tattletale means saying something with the explicit idea of causing trouble for another when there’s no reason to: for example, an older child who should know better but gleefully shares the news that their little sister ate some cat poop with their friends. On the other hand, “telling” is a child letting a teacher know about a situation that’s unsafe: for instance, when another child repeatedly pushes others off the swings in the playground.
McCormack says whether a child is telling a secret that should be told or being a tattletale depends on the individual situation. “Like a lot of parenting strategies, unfortunately there is no silver bullet — it depends on the circumstances,” he says.
Sometimes kids are labelled tattletales for doing the right thing — and that’s grossly unfair. “If say, the situation relates to bullying, standing up for the truth can be an act of bravery and kids need to know that,” he adds.
A word on evil secrets
Did you know sexual abuse affects one in four girls and one in seven boys in Australia under the age of 18? Many perpetrators of these crimes tell their young victims that it’s their special secret and, if they do tell, bad things will happen to those they love.
Forensic and clinical psychologist Dr Karen Owen is an international expert with three decades of experience in sex offender assessment. Getting up close and personal with those who commit crimes against children is part of her job and it has given her unique insight into these predators.
- Don’t just encourage the notion that you shouldn’t talk to strangers. Many children struggle with the idea of what a stranger is. If a person offers a child a lolly and chats with a child for a few minutes, the child no longer regards them as a stranger.
- It’s the really charming, clean-cut person who is often the perpetrator. We need to break down the myth that children should be scared of weedy blokes in the park with long coffee-stained raincoats. By perpetuating that myth, we inadvertently put our kids at risk.
- Explain to your child that their body is private and tell them what private parts are. Naming body parts by their proper names is really important so the child can be specific. If you have a child who says in court, he touched my “fluffy” — and I have seen it happen — already there’s an opportunity for the defence to discredit the evidence. Let your child know no one should touch their private parts or ask the child to touch theirs. This also applies to other children who ask them to.
- Never force a child to kiss an adult if they don’t want to — it should be on the child’s terms. Force a child and that inadvertently reinforces the idea that if someone asks for a kiss or a hug they have to oblige. The next step then becomes if someone says they want to tickle you there, you have to allow them. Sometimes parents talk about “good touch” and “bad touch”, but this may be confusing because often these touches do not hurt — they might even tickle.
- Encourage the concept of “feeling comfortable”. Dr Owen has found that adults who’ve been abused as kids felt uncomfortable during the process of grooming. Teach your kids to say “Stop! I don’t like it” if they don’t feel comfortable. Perpetrators I deal with say that during the process of grooming they’re put off if a child says, “Stop, I will tell.”
- Signs of abuse are sexualised play at an earlier age than you’d expect with their peers or toys as well as any pronounced changes in behaviour. If there are people they don’t like being around, be duly cautious.
It can help to share with your child books that discuss inappropriate touch. Editor, publisher and author Jayneen Sanders has written a book for young children, Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept, that explores the topic.
Types of secrets
- Surprise secrets These secrets usually involve a special celebration, like a shiny new pushbike as a Christmas gift for a younger sibling. Surprise secrets are enjoyable and fun.
- Secrets by omission These secrets are made without malice but they can place the child in an awkward position. A favourite aunty might say, just before dropping the kids home, “Don’t let your parents know we ate those chocolate cupcakes.” It’s a bit of a double whammy: the child might get in strife for not eating all their dinner but, if they tell, they think their aunty will get in trouble for filling them up with junk.
- Harmful secrets This may refer to behaviours like self-harming, bulimia, secret smoking or drinking alcohol. Or it may be predatory behaviour on the part of someone older. As part of befriending and grooming the child, the predator will tell the child to keep what they share together a secret.