If you are the parent of a child aged nine and up, you are already aware of the shift in perspective that happens in the preteen years. Suddenly, peers and friendships take on more importance than before. While your child still values your opinion, you certainly are no longer the center of your child’s social world. Her friends are. And with this shift comes a need to keep from you some of what’s going on.
You won’t be told everything. Your child will keep from you things that he thinks should be secret. He won’t tell you things that are just between him and his friends. And this, obviously, can be a problem, because he is not yet a good judge of what he can handle and what you need to know.
Keeping secrets becomes something of an obsession in the preteen years. This is the age of the locked diary, after all. Mystery, intrigue, and hidden information of all sorts attract older elementary school students. Being able to keep a secret is a mark of self-control and competence and kids this age know it.
So children in the preteen years are likely to keep secrets. In addition, your child’s friends may make her pledge to keep a secret. Your child may be burdened not only with secrets of her own but with the secrets of others and the weight of a promise not to tell.
Couple this interest in secrets and the power of children’s social relationships with a preteen’s growing awareness of adult issues and sexual vulnerability and it’s obvious that a kid can get in over his head pretty quickly. Keeping secrets becomes a trap. Even if he is not personally involved in his friends’ worries, hearing about them and pledging to keep them secret can cause your child problems. Research has shown that adolescents who keep secrets and cannot unburden themselves to a trusted adult are more anxious and troubled than children who are not.
You cannot derail the interest in secrets. But you can keep the lines of communication open. Do this in two ways:
- First, have a conversation with your child today – before you even think there’s a secret she’s keeping – about sharing important information. Let her know that some things should be told, even if it seems scary or dangerous or even if she’s made a promise not to tell. Let her know that if a friend shares a secret, your child should decide for herself if keeping the secret is a good idea or if telling an adult is actually the better course of action. Empower your child to be thoughtful about secrets.
- Second, make certain you are someone who can be trusted with confidential information. Be someone who isn’t easily shocked, who doesn’t immediately jump to conclusions, and who doesn’t shush or shame a child for revealing disturbing information. If you want your child to tell you what’s bothering him, you have to be the sort of person who makes things better, not someone who makes things worse. You establish your credibility over time. The time to start being open-minded and non-judgmental is now.
Even with this sort of advance planning, you will stumble on secrets your child is keeping from you. What should you do then?
- If you suspect your child is keeping secret something you think you and she should talk about, then say so. There’s no need to ask the child if she’s keeping something secret – there’s no point in forcing her to lie to you. Instead, say what you suspect and start the conversation from there: “I’ve noticed that your friends were talking about shoplifting at the mall. Tell me about that…” Remember that your ultimate objective is to keep the lines of communication open between the two of you, not to shame your child or make her feel she has to hide things from you. Make this a friendly conversation.
- If you discover a secret your child has been keeping from you, the same process applies. Don’t ask questions that will encourage lying but simply say what you found out and go from there. “I was cleaning your room yesterday and I saw some things that make me think you’re smoking pot. Tell me about that…” Your child may accuse you of snooping. Don’t deny it. Say, “Yes, I was putting your clothes away in the drawers and I found things.”
Which brings up the question, should you snoop? Should you read your child’s diary, go through her desk drawers, search her computer? Maybe. If you really and truly have cause for concern, if you think your child is considering suicide, for example, or is acting erratically, then searching for clues might be the wise thing to do. It might save your child’s life. But keep in mind that your relationship with your child is built on trust. Whatever you do that erodes that trust has potential to erode your relationship.
Keeping secrets can become a trap. It’s the mechanism on which pedophiles, bullies and abusers rely. It’s the place where feelings can spiral out of control and lead to catastrophic consequences.
Help your child and your child’s friends know the difference between secrets that are fun to keep and secrets that must be shared.