Teaching your child about secrets can be a complicated thing.
For instance, sometimes, a school-aged child’s social standing can rely on their ability to keep a secret and ‘be a good friend.’ If the child cannot respect the privacy of their friends, they can risk damaging friendships.
That said, there is a fine line when it comes to children and keeping secrets.
“If the secret is something that has anything to do with safety, then obviously we don’t want children to keep those kinds of secrets,” explains Ann Lagges, Ph.D., H.S.P.P., a pediatric psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. “If a person is in danger or at risk of getting hurt (emotionally or physically), then it’s obviously not something for a child to keep to themselves.” Indeed, safety is the key when teaching children about secrets, she says. And that means safety for themselves and for others.
Parents should begin to encourage minor secret keeping around the age of 7, says Dr. Lagges, putting it in terms their children will understand by explaining that friends may get mad if they share something small that’s private. Children younger than age 7 are not mature enough to fully understand the concept of secrets, she says.
Still, secret keeping can be a challenging concept for some older kids to grasp. Children learn by making mistakes. When they do share a secret and their friend becomes upset, it is time to sit down and ask the child why they believe the friend was hurt and what they could do differently next time. “Ask them why they should want to keep the secret and what is fun about sharing,” Dr. Lagges advises. “Is the benefit of sharing the secret the fun you have doing it? Does that outweigh the negatives that might happen? While it may be fun, it could be hurtful to the other person. Is your fun more important than hurting your friend’s feelings?”
“Learning how to keep a secret is part of navigating social relationships,” says Dr. Lagges. Here’s a helpful, age-by-age timeline.
Children Ages 7 to 10
Parents should begin to talk about the differences between good and bad secrets. This can start with something fun, such as “don’t tell Dad we got him tickets to a baseball game for his birthday.” They will learn that it ruins someone’s fun if you share their secret. Expect them to make bad choices with secrets and learn from their mistakes, says Dr. Lagges.
At this age, however, parents should also focus on safety and explain that if someone has or will get hurt, the secret should always be shared with an adult.
During this age, it is important to discuss the consequences of your child’s actions, stressing that telling secrets can hurt another person. Conversations about empathy are essential as this is the age where children are learning who they can trust. Secret keeping is popular in preteens. Children begin to learn who spreads news throughout the classroom and who can keep information to themselves. Parents should engage their children in conversations about gossip and how it can be harmful.
As always, safety should be emphasized. Parents need to be clear that if someone threatens to hurt themselves or others, the secret must be shared immediately with an adult. If the child is unclear if the secret is a safety issue, they should always ask and check in with an adult.
Children this age should understand the importance of secrets, says Dr. Lagges. However, safety can play a bigger issue at this stage since many kids are prone to peer pressure. Parents should not be upset if their teenager does not want to tell them everything, but they should continue to stress the importance of sharing information when safety is a concern.
-- By Gia Miller