Good or bad secrets: Is there such a thing and should you be encouraging your children to keep either?
Secrets sound exciting, they sound mysterious, and they can make children feel included. If something is a secret, it has value, it is important and it puts those in the know in a position of power.
However, secrets exclude others, they can hide harmful behaviours and blur the line between deceitfulness and the truth, and it’s important we talk to children about them.
Secrets can be safe or unsafe and it is important that children understand the difference between both, as psychologist Catherine Hallissey tells Metro.co.uk.
‘It’s really important to talk to children about secrets,’ Catherine says. Begin by teaching them that there are different kinds of secrets – fun/safe/good ones and unsafe/bad ones.’
A safe, or fun secret could be an older sibling finding out about Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy and having to keep the magic alive for their younger siblings.
‘Keeping good secrets makes you feel happy and excited,’ Catherine explains. ‘Whereas bad secrets make you feel worried and afraid, and you feel that you can’t tell anyone.’
Having a trusted adult who children can go to and tell any secrets that they are uncomfortable keeping, is really important. Children need to understand from a young age that ‘spilling the beans’ to a trusted adult doesn’t mean that they will get in trouble.
Catherine suggests: ‘Teach them that, as a general rule, safe adults don’t ask kids to keep secrets, and if anyone ever tells them that they must never tell, or they will get into trouble for telling, then that is a bad secret, and the exact kind of secret you should tell a trusted adult about.’
Adults often tell children secrets, without intending harm – grandparents not wanting to disclose how much chocolate they actually gave to their grandchild, or what time the kids really went to bed, but Catherine says this is a no-no and can be damaging.
‘Even seemingly harmless secrets like, “Don’t tell Daddy we got this ice cream’” can make kids feel uncomfortable and lead to feelings of divided loyalty,’ she notes.
Secrets are definitely not advised when co-parenting either – ‘it’s not the child’s job to protect you from your co-parent,’ adds Catherine.
What about when we want to keep something nice a secret – buying a gift for mum/dad and keeping a surprise until their birthday, let’s say?
‘These are the fun secrets, ones that will be revealed,’ says Catherine. ‘I recommend that parents move away from asking their child to keep a secret, and to call it a surprise instead.
‘This reinforces the idea that safe adults don’t ask kids to keep secrets, as surprises are meant to be revealed at some defined point in the future.’
There is of course, a difference between keeping something private and something a secret, and children need to understand the difference between the two.
Children need to learn to respect other people’s personal boundaries from a young age. They need to know that it’s not okay to tell their friends that their sibling forgot to put on their undies before going to school, for instance. While it might seem funny to them, it shouldn’t be shared.
Understanding privacy issues is all about establishing those healthy relationship skills that will carry them through life; kindness, empathy, and consideration for how others might be feeling.
Toddlers, for example, can’t keep secrets. In fact, the age-old saying ‘out of the mouths of babes’ is never truer when it comes to toddlers and secrets, so slagging off your mother-in-law’s dress within your toddler’s earshot, for instance, could come back to bite you when they blurt out to her what you have said.
Mortifying and likely to make things very uncomfortable, but the best way to avoid this sort of thing happening, is to not to say anything in front of your toddler that you don’t wish repeating. It is, though, a good opportunity to talk about the impact of our words on others.
One of the best ways to discourage your children from keeping secrets is to lead by example, so along with not asking them to keep secrets, don’t keep secrets for them either.
Make it a house rule – ‘we don’t keep secrets’ and have an open communication policy in your home instead.
Be careful how you react when they have done something wrong, too, as you don’t want to make them feel that you will go wild if they have a secret to tell.
Also, be mindful also not to dismiss their worries while they are young. It is true that if you don’t listen to the small things while they are small, they won’t tell you the bigger things when they are big – so they won’t see you as one of their trusted adults.