“Mom, I have to tell you something … ” A foreboding statement that when combined with your child’s ashen complexion and sullen look is seldom followed by, “I aced my math test!” It may be your son just hit a baseball through your windshield. It’s possible your daughter used the entire bottle of your brand new, expensive fragrance playing dress up with her dolls. Whatever the crisis du jour, you quickly process the news brief and put your parental gears in motion.
“What were you thinking?â€, “How many times have I told you not to,” and “Go to your room, you’re grounded,” are a few of the stock responses expected by children in such predicaments. Despite the overpowering fear of the consequences, many children voluntarily offer their parents the details of an unpleasant incident – but many more do not.
Imagine walking up to someone you admire, love and respect and admitting you’ve let him down. Not only do you have to recant how but also why, you specifically did something you know that person did not want you to do. Would you confess or reconsider out of your fear of the repercussions? Would you doubt that telling your secret might compromise that person’s love or affection for you? Do you trust them enough to handle the situation with tact, grace and compassion?
It is interesting to understand one of the most powerful emotions that guides a child to either confess or cover-up something from his parents. Most would assume self preservation, fear of losing a privilege or an underlying vein of sneakiness sends children into ultra protective mode. As surprising as it may seem, trust is the major factor that determines what and how much information your child shares with you.
To Tell or Not To Tell
Naturally you desire a high level of mutual trust with your child. You encourage him to be honest about who spilled grape juice on the new rug and want to trust the decisions he makes. However, children fear facing the disappointment and outrage of their parent’s reaction. They hope for leniency, a fair and compassionate ear that hears heartfelt sorrow and a hug regardless of the circumstances. In the end, a child’s decision to talk to his parent – or not – about a problem often hinges on his level of trust.
When a young child tells his parent about what happened in his classroom, he feels he is unburdening himself to someone he can trust explicitly with his secrets and feelings. Although you may believe that being reprimanded by his art teacher for spilling paint was clearly no cause for serious consequences at home, your child is apprehensive to admit his flaw to you. Searching for reassurance, compassion and a clear conscience, kids have been known to blurt out what happened before even being buckled into the booster on the way home from school.
Countless children have shared the familiar sense of panic as they brace for their parent’s reaction upon learning about something they’ve done wrong. Often they weigh the odds of owning up to the incident versus attempting a covert cover up.
Your child’s trust that you love him, and will still love him after learning what he’s done, is crucial. While you could never fathom altering your feelings based on his less-than-glowing report card, your child may wonder otherwise. Children doubt whether their parents will listen objectively, or over react without hearing the entire set of circumstances.
The Definition of a Secret
Although your child may trust your reaction and understanding nature enough to follow a “tell all” philosophy, the ability to lose his trust doesn’t stop there.
“Mom, you always tell her everything!” Have you ever been stunned by your child hastily retreating to his room in tears? If he overhears you talking to a friend about an “incident,” he’ll probably get upset. This reaction is typical of a child who feels betrayed.
“I don’t understand why he was so upset.” Your confused reaction is also typical. You were innocently talking to a friend about your child’s mishap at school. “I was actually saying I didn’t think it was a big deal at all” is lovingly added by parents who were casually recalling an incident their child told them when the child overheard the exchange.
“I’m never telling you anything again!” This reaction is one that occurs frequently. A child becomes upset at what he interprets as a betrayal. He asks one parent a delicate question only to overhear that parent share the discussion with the other parent or with a friend. A child who loses trust in his parent’s ability to be understanding, and guarding his secrets feels devastatingly betrayed.
Family therapist Ann Carter-Klein, LCSW, has worked with families struggling to overcome trust issues. “There can be long term consequences when children don’t trust their parents,” she says. Whether he lacks trust in emotional or physical demonstrations of support, or doubts his parent’s ability to fairly assess a situation, it can be devastating if a child does not trust his parents.
Klein has seen the results of children who go in search of someone to trust with their secrets, problems or childhood concerns. “Children who don’t feel they can rely on their parents turn to persons outside the home. Too many times those people represent the chance to be a potentially negative influence on a vulnerable child.â€
If a child doesn’t trust his parents to provide an honest answer or lend a safe and compassionate shoulder to cry on, he’ll opt for the next best thing. He may ask a sports teammate about the effects or risks of drug use or smoking instead of asking his parents. A child may choose to talk to a peer on the playground about his feelings of inadequacy in math class.
Don’t Tell Dad!
Of course no one expects you not to share any of details of your child’s life with your spouse, or a trusted confidante as situations sometimes require advice and support from your trusted circle of peers. You want to keep your spouse informed on the activities and events of your child’s life. However, you have to be discrete and assess which situations warrant sharing and which do not. If you elect to talk with your partner about an event or discussion your child shared with you in confidence, make sure it’s for the benefit of your child. Give your child the chance to talk to his other parent himself about his report card or the window he broke.
Mary Wolfe, a Murfreesboro mother of five says, “After dinner, while the children are playing, my husband and I talk about how the day went. The children are pre-occupied and pay no attention to â€˜grown-up talk.’ This is the time when we can easily share our â€˜secrets’ and how to handle them if need be. We never keep anything from each other.” There’s nothing beneficial about sharing an embarrassing moment that happened in gym class at the dinner table – even though you thought it was a cute story. Wait until you’re alone with your spouse to reveal the details.
Develop the understanding that there is a difference between preserving your child’s privacy and trust and acting covertly against him. If you need to talk to someone about an event that you think is private, talk to your child about it first. Consider talking to your spouse about school performance or behavioral issues when your child isn’t home.
Balance maintaining your child’s trust with talking to your partner or soliciting an opinion from a friend. Many couples find it helpful to discuss issues after their children have gone to bed.
Building a high level of mutual trust will help your child as he navigates his way through the myriad of peer pressure situations he’ll face. Knowing he has a trusted source of information and support in his parents, he’ll rely on you to help him make decisions and to share his inner feelings with. For information on learning how to talk to your child about anything and everything, visit pbs.org/parents/talkingwithkids. Learn strategies and get the insights on how to keep it all out in the open.
Gina Roberts-Grey is a licensed clinical social worker and a freelance writer.