Oh that wonderful childhood feeling of sharing a secret with a friend! The closeness you felt in sharing something only the two of you know. The attention you got from those who wanted to know, but you wouldn’t tell.
As a teenager, a secret is a sign of being chosen as the friend who is trustworthy and stands out from the rest. It is one of the ultimate signs of social acceptance by a peer. It is sharing the thing you are so excited about, you are busting at the seems to tell someone!
As an adult, how cute is it to share a secret with a child about the hidden candy or the surprise for another person. “We are throwing a surprise party for Grandma, but it is a secret. So don’t tell anyone or you will ruin it. I’m trusting you. Shhh”. They are so giggly and feel so special for knowing something another adult knows. Some children even feel all grown up being trusted with this secret information.
This all sounds so innocent. It can be a simple game for fun or a way to teach a child how to be trusted. The expectation being.... you never, ever, under any circumstances, tell. As innocent as your intentions may be to have secrets, having secrets can set an expectation which can go terribly wrong. You have just instilled in the child not to tell under any circumstances. In the black and white world of a child, any circumstances is a literal statement without discernment between types of secrets. Even without using those words, the message is that you are untrustworthy if you tell or, in certain cases, it is fun or you are special to keep a secret.
The pitfall is that the messages attached to these behaviors may support the dangerous secrets.
Think on this:
A friend tells them about a plan to meet up with a stranger from the internet, but doesn’t want them to tell.
This man on the internet told the friend to keep it a secret because no one will understand their love and they will try to break them up.
Someone shares a secret that they are being hurt or are in danger.
An adult tells a child that what they do together when the child is being sexually abused is a special secret between the two of them.
A child is told by their abuser to keep the abuse a secret or the child with get in trouble with other adults.
When we hear this, we respond with THE CHILD SHOULD TELL. Of course they should tell; however, they have been socialized and flat out told that sharing a secret is a bad thing to do and, sometimes, keeping a secret means lying to protect the secret. We have disarmed them without even realizing it. A big protective factor in regards to all types of abuse, is providing permission to share without judgement.
Surprises, Privacy, and Secrets
Surprises: Information which is temporarily not being shared with certain individuals in order to do something good for someone else. The key is that it is something which will be shared eventually for a positive cause.
Privacy: Information which is withheld out of respect of one’s boundaries and comfort. Changing behind closed doors is privacy as it is to respect one’s body and to be comfortable. The key is that changing clothes and having a body is not something to fear or be ashamed of. Privacy provides boundaries, not secrets.
Secrets: Information which is shared between individuals with the explicit understanding it will not be shared with anyone else and there would be consequences such as loss of trust, loss of friendship, punishment, etc. Even in your innocent secrets, the idea of loss of trust is still present.
Combating Dangerous Secrets
This is really simple. Don’t use secrets, use surprises. Take away the idea that secrets are okay, and don’t allow them to be socially acceptable. Teach your child that if there is a secret, then there is something wrong. If there is something you are told you can not share with trusted adults, something is wrong. Be clear that secrets are not okay. Do this simple step and a child or teen does not need to wonder about sharing BECAUSE they don’t have to discern if a secret is dangerous or not.