One of our roles as a parent is to ensure the protection and safety of our children. An area that has often led to children becoming unsafe is around secrets. Secrets can be harmless. However, there are some secrets that should not be kept.
Unfortunately, in today’s society, the word ‘secret’ can have connotations of sexual abuse, unkindness, danger, emotional anguish etc. It can be associated with shame, guilt and fear. There are people that will use secrets to their advantage and may use them to hurt your child. A child abuser will often tell them that its “our little secret” to ensure that they don’t tell anyone.
Mentioning the word ‘secrets’ can automatically shift perceptions and evoke emotions of hiddenness, bad stuff, unkindness, teasing, or merely a surprise waiting to happen. Surprises, on the other hand, conjure emotions of happiness, joy, and laughter. They tend to create excitement and are usually temporary.
A secret is something that is never intended to be told. They generally stay hidden whereas surprises mean that they are revealed at some stage. Secrets exclude others and have the potential to harm, usually causing fear, shame, guilt, sadness or being uncomfortable. Surprises generally require patience to keep whereas secrets usually require courage to share.
Teaching children about good or bad secrets can become confusing. Whenever anyone tells a secret, they tend to make it exciting. To a child, all secrets can appear as good secrets. By eliminating secrets all together, it means that they are not confused and know straight away if something is not right. This doesn’t mean that you need to take all the fun and excitement out of spontaneous or special events – it just means you need to change your wording.
I would encourage you, as a parent, to modify your language and try using the word ‘surprise’ or ‘private’ instead of ‘secret’.
Chatting with young children about safe versus unsafe touching/words/secrets is essential.
Thus, changing our language so that the word ‘secret’ becomes ‘surprise’ assists in eliminating the hiddenness and ugliness from genuine surprises and helps children flag the word ‘secret’ as something unusual and realizing they need to tell a trusted adult.
Chatting with your child about ‘secrets’:
- Share why you are replacing ‘secrets’ with ‘surprises’.
- Chat about different scenarios. Talk about times when people may use ‘secrets’ to do something bad. Talk about some ‘surprises’ eg a surprise party and how surprises are different to secrets.
- Chat about boundaries with their bodies.
- Emphasize that no concern they have is too small. Encourage them to tell you
- Let them know that they will not get into trouble for sharing a ‘secret’ with you that someone has made them promise.
- Ask them to tell you what they understand about ‘secrets’.
- Be loving and accepting.
Talking about ‘secrets’ is only part of protecting your children from predators and sexual abuse. Another action is using correct anatomical terms for all body parts. Great relationships between you and your children, nurturing their self-esteem, and being wise to abuse can also help. Above all, please trust your child’s ‘gut’ instinct about who they don’t trust.
Some examples to chat about with your children to emphasize that they need to speak to a safe adult if:
- Someone tries to touch yours, or someone else’s, private parts (that covered by a swimsuit).
- Someone says, ‘it’s our little secret’.
- Someone tries to give you a present and tells you not to tell anyone else.
- Someone tells you how they were hurt but asks you not to tell anyone else.
- Someone plays a ‘game’ with you, usually with a reward, but you are not to tell anyone else.
- Someone tells you mean things about someone else and tells you not to tell anyone.
Identifying ‘safe’ adults:
- They won’t try to confuse or scare you.
- They won’t hurt you (unless needing to do something medically or take you to the Doctor).
- They listen to you and value what you say and not dismiss you.
- They respect your boundaries and rules.
- They care about your feelings and respect your opinions.
When parents talk openly and appropriately with their children about issues that may affect them, it can help eradicate the shame, guilt and fear often associated with them. Issues like abuse – sexual, physical, or emotional, eating disorders, suicide, etc.
When children or teenagers come to you and ask evasively about a secret a friend told them, it can be difficult not to pry it out of them. Resist the temptation. Instead, encourage them to tell either you or a trusted adult if it fits the following criteria:
- Something illegal.
- Someone is a danger to themselves or someone else.
- Someone contemplating suicide, at-risk, or has attempted suicide.
- Someone has impaired judgement that is affecting their decision making, especially if substances (drugs or alcohol) are involved.
- Power imbalance.
- Threats, bribes.
- Inappropriate physical touch.
- Unable or underage consent.
Chatting about appropriate disclosure to a responsible adult plus the legalities of certain situations may also assist in this regard. You may also need to address the culture of feeling proud that you have kept a secret and haven’t ‘snitched’; that you have been loyal.
Remember, how you react to what they share can determine the emotional response that follows as to whether there is added shame and guilt. Respond. Don’t react.
Great moments of creating the opportunity where children and teenagers can open up to you are when you spend time doing things ‘side by side’ eg in a car together, cooking, gardening, walking together etc.
Other ways you can encourage children to open-up about issues are when you appropriately share your struggles or when you create open discussion moments. Mealtimes are great for this when you discuss the good, the bad and the changes from each family member’s day or when you encourage everyone to write down 3-5 things they wish they could change about their life and your family, and then share.
Date nights where a parent takes a child on an outing to spend time focusing on the relationship and listening to them can also be a great foundational step. Remember, openness and honesty are built over time.
I encourage you to not force your teenagers to share ‘secrets’ with you. Rather, emphasize that you need to keep her safe and sometimes people use secrets to make others unsafe or to make them do something they don’t want to do. As long as it doesn’t breach those things, then they can choose whether or not to tell you.
If your children ever come to you and tell you about a ‘secret’ or abuse, please listen unconditionally. Take the time to hear them fully. Be loving and accepting. Then, plan your response.