Shh! Don't Tell! It's a Secret!
by Excerpt-Healthy Parent-Sunday Telegraph-6/1/08
Published: Sunday, June 1, 2008
Telling the truth about secrets
This is a rerun of a column that previously ran in The Sunday Telegraph.
"Shh! Don't tell! It's a secret!"
This sounds so innocent. Picture girls giggling over shared knowledge of a birthday present yet to be wrapped, the subtle sibling bonding implicit in knowing the password to the latest cardboard clubhouse or the self-conscious whispers among preteens admitting first crushes.
Switch scenes. Lose the innocence, add a threat. Picture the divorced father who allows his son a freedom prohibited in the mother's home and in so doing undermines her authority. "Shh! Don't tell!"
Picture a schoolyard bully, a street-corner drug dealer, an abusive caregiver or a neglectful nanny, any of whom might use the same words.
"Shh! Don't tell. It's a secret."
The threat? It can be as implicit as the fear that revealing the secret will anger or alienate a loved one. Telling Mom will get you in trouble with Dad, or worse, set the two of them back to bickering. Or it can be as explicit and terrifying as a promise of painful revenge.
You know about those stories. They're all around you.
All too often, secrets are destructive. Even the best intended, most innocent confidence can generate mistrust, worry and fear, and can even interfere with the course of healthy development.
Kids are impulsive. If maturation is the process of developing control over impulses, then children are impulsive by definition. Younger, less mature and developmentally delayed kids have to fight against the urges that often overwhelm them. They want immediate gratification. They want the pleasure of telling your secrets.
It makes them feel special, that feeling of "I know something that you don't." The secret itself is a commodity of value. By spilling the beans, the child feels himself momentarily valued.
Asking such a child to keep a secret is often an exercise in frustration. It can be like
leaving the same child hungry and alone in a room with a chocolate bar and asking him not to eat it.
The damage may not be done in the telling of the secret so much as in the child's perception of your reaction to the telling. Your anger and disappointment and punishments are unwarranted. It wasn't fair to enlist the child in the first place.
Secrets make and break bonds. A shared secret can cement a special bond between peers. For every pair of new best friends, there is inevitably someone who feels left out, rejected and alone. This may be the natural course of identity formation through social bonding in childhood, but it still hurts.
It can be far more destructive when a caregiver asks a child to keep a secret. Knowledge of an adult's secret is power that pulls the child away from her otherwise normal bonds. It weakens ties to other adults and seems to lift the child above her peer group and her siblings.
"I know a secret" becomes a magical chant that eventually hurts the child in the course of serving the adult's selfish needs, needs that ought to be fulfilled among other adults.
Consider what happens all too often between immature, angry or uneducated divorcing parents. Insecure and alone, the divorcing father (for example) wants validation that his pain is real. Who could understand this better, he reasons, than his kids? So he shares a confidence, confesses a secret, all with the selfish (although often unrecognized) goal of proving to himself that he's right, that the estranged wife – still and always the children's mother – is wrong.
The child taken into a parent's confidence feels special. But being parentified in this way is psychologically destructive. It causes real anxiety when the secret must be kept, often at the cost of the bond with the other parent. It cheats the child, in effect, of her childhood.
Too often, "Don't tell your mom . . ." becomes a form of abuse known as parental alienation.
Secrets can be traps. Then there's the child who comes to you in distress, but will only talk if you promise to keep his secrets.
Been there? Done that? Was it a major catastrophe?
The trust between a parent and a child certainly depends on privacy and discretion. You must have some understanding that there are some matters that can be discussed in public, while others are kept at home.
But safety must always be even more important than privacy. To keep a secret about something that's potentially dangerous is to undermine a child's basic security.
A good policy might go something like this: "We can talk about anything. I'll always respect your privacy, but we can't keep secrets about safety. Because I love you, I'll always do everything I can to keep you and the world around you safe, even if that means you get mad at me for telling a secret."
What secrets aren't safe?
Anything about drugs and alcohol, about runaways, skipping school and sneaking out of the house is potentially unsafe.
Anything about firearms and explosives and weapons in general in unsafe.
Anything about inappropriate touching, abuse (physical, sexual, verbal), stalking and neglect is unsafe.
The list is long. When in doubt, err on the side of safety.
Are you already trapped? Did you already promise unconditional secrecy, only to learn that there may be a real danger looming? Safety first.
Surprises, not secrets. Surprises are different. A surprise is an upcoming unknown of little consequence. A birthday gift or an adventure or a special meal or an unexpected treat.
Like tickling, some people enjoy the tingle of excitement that accompanies a surprise, while others don't. As the "surprisor," you can ask the intended "surprise" whether a surprise is welcome. This kind of permission can defuse the anxiety and make whatever is ahead something that genuinely tingles with pleasure.
Dr. Benjamin Garber is a child psychologist in Merrimack. To order his HealthyParent books or to reach him with comments and questions, call 879-9100 or go to www.healthyparent.com. Copyright 2006 Benjamin Garber, all rights reserved.