by Kristin Kuiper, LMSW, MSW
I talked about secrets in my last blog and received a specific question about how to address the issue of secrets with teenagers. What is a parent to do when it is discovered that your teen, or a teen you know, is keeping a secret about the behavior of a friend or peer from you? How do you get your teen or your tween to share this information with you? This is such a tough call—to report what is going on to someone who can be helpful (think police, school officials, parents of the teen in question) or to keep quiet so that you don’t jeopardize the trust relationship you have with your own child telling you this type of information. I’m sure we all have reference points for this challenge—either we remember when we were teens ourselves, not sharing with mom and dad how friends were drinking over the weekend in fear of being found out as a tattletale, or have encountered this type of scenario with our own children.
There definitely is a code of secrecy among teen peers. To be discovered as someone who passes along sensitive information to their own parents is one of the worst things imaginable for any teen. Due to their developmental stage, putting priorities in order of safety first, relationship second, is almost impossible. Encouraging your teen to be open with you and share sensitive information is not a one conversation situation. Opening dialogue into difficult topics is something that takes patience and consistency. Teens can smell a “nosey” parent a mile away and usually will try to keep that distance permanent!
So, to open up this dialogue there a couple of things to remember. First, teens talk when they want to, not only when you are ready for them to! Avoiding investigative type questions that puts pressure on them to divulge will do the opposite of what you are hoping for. Instead, opening up time—drive time, around the kitchen time, hanging out watching TV time, where you can ask open ended questions (“How’s your friend doing?” or “I heard that your friend is having some issues, what have you heard?”) to see what your child is comfortable sharing is a good place to start. If your teen seems closed off, it’s a pretty good signal that some more time for this type of dialogue is necessary so that you can gain a footing of what’s going on in their inner world. Also, showing them through experience that they can trust you with sensitive information is also helpful. Are you an effective secret keeper? Working on this is also a good place to start. At lastly, I encourage contact with your teen’s social circles. Even if this means doing things you don’t particular enjoy—getting into their environment is a crucial way to know who’s who and to discover more of who you teen is when they are with their friends. As you get to know the secrets your teen holds, you build relationship with them and also come to a greater understanding of when it might be called for to take action in keeping others in your teen’s life safe.