Do Tell, Don’t Tell

By the time most children reach the late elementary years, they have begun to own their own stories. At home and at work, I am reminded of this fact frequently. In the families that I work with, there is often a tension between parents and children about how to handle sensitive information as well as what information should be handled with sensitivity. That is, who “should” or “has the right to” know about a child’s diagnosis or treatment. Grandparents? School personnel? Mom’s best friend? Dad’s coworkers? The whole world? That’s what Byron was getting at when he asked his parents and me

It’s my life. Don’t I get to say who knows what about it? Byron, age 15

This issue was introduced when Byron’s mother mentioned that she was not planning to disclose on school medical forms that her son was taking an antidepressant medication for treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Mom believed that the school nurse would be “gossipy” and spread the information around the faculty lounge. She didn’t believe it was the “nurse’s business” that Byron takes medication or that he has a psychiatric diagnosis. Byron believed that it was important to be honest on the school form and that it’s not a big deal if the nurse tells others. Byron is a popular kid and a good student, well-liked by teachers and coaches. He did not worry about being judged negatively if word got out about OCD. Besides, according to Byron, Mom had already told many people about the disorder and treatment, people who, unlike the school nurse, had no need to know.

Struggles over privacy play out in many arenas. Sometimes parents want to share information that a child feels should be kept private. There are times when the preferences are flip-flopped;  kids want to share information that parents feels should not be disclosed. However the preferences fall,  a common thread runs through these parent-child struggles:  Tweens and teens want to own their own stories and control what stories are shared with whom.

Here are some recent examples of this struggle that have played out in my office. The parent perspective is in italics.

  • A 10-year-old girl is angry that her mother tells “everyone” she was adopted. Adoption is nothing to be ashamed of so why hide the fact?
  • A 16-year-old girl believes Mom and Dad discourage her from telling her best friend that she is in therapy for an eating disorder because they are ashamed of her. You can’t really know for sure that she will keep this information confidential.
  • A 17-year-old high school senior does not understand why his mother jumped into a conversation with his grandparents about his college plans and then did not tell them the truth about his plan to take a gap year. We’ll tell them when it’s a done deal; no need to worry them in case you change your mind.
  • A 12-year-old boy felt “completely humiliated” when his mother ran into his teacher at the grocery store and told her about his latest crush. What’s the big deal? I think it’s sweet.
  • A 14-year-old girl is upset that her parents yelled at her because she told classmates she has a learning disability. We don’t want you to be teased.

When parents are overly concerned about keeping information private, there is a risk that their preference for secrecy suggests to their child that the information is shameful. When they are overly forthcoming with information, there is the risk that their child will feel that an important boundary, and perhaps even trust, has been violated.

Parents are often befuddled by the very mixed messages regarding privacy they hear from their children. After all, adolescents are nothing if not inconsistent. The same teenager who freaks out because her father told a neighbor that she wrecked the car posts the information, along with photos, on her Facebook page. The same boy who tells his mother that his life is nobody’s business but his own keeps an online journal that his friends and strangers can read.

Still, there is an important way that most tweens and teens are consistent: they want to control the flow of information. Therefore, a good rule of thumb for parents is to share information about their teens and tweens judiciously. This is especially true for information that could be considered sensitive or personal – grades, behavioral issues,  sexuality, dating, mental illness, substance abuse, legal trouble.

Parents who are dealing with children struggling with mental illness, behavioral issues, substance abuse, or legal trouble often turn to friends and relatives for support. It would be unfair to expect such parents to cope with these challenges completely alone. In situations such as this, the best approach is for parents to select a trusted confidante who will respect the child’s privacy.

I recently worked with a lovely family in which the teenaged son had  disclosed to Mom and Dad that he is gay. Because of her religious upbringing, this was difficult news for Mom, but she was fully supportive of her son and firmly committed to getting over her “hangups about homosexuality.” She did not know anyone with a gay child and was feeling very lonely. In session, when her son heard how alone she was feeling, he instantly encouraged her to talk to anyone she wanted except her parents. He wasn’t ready for his grandparents, both devout Catholics, to know. Mom checked with her son about sharing his sexuality with her best friend. He was completely comfortable with this.

What worked so well for this family was that Mom and Dad both respected their son’s need to control the flow of his private information, and the boy respected his mother’s need to turn to a friend for support. He understood that she had good reason to want to share his story. He also understood that being the Catholic mother of gay son was her story to tell. I suspect this whole situation would have played out very differently had Mom already talked to her friend without her son’s blessing.

Keep in mind that kids are not the only ones who value their privacy and expect their personal information to be held confidential. I have witnessed many tense conversations (okay, arguments) after a child had revealed a family “secret.” Perhaps the loudest “conversation” ever to take place in my office was caused by a middle-schooler sharing with her health class that her mother had undergone weight-reduction surgery. Enough said.

Kids vary widely in terms of their need for privacy. Many adolescents take it in stride when they discover that a parent has shared stories about them with family members or friends. Others react with outrage. As I often say to child clients who are trying to figure out what to share and what to keep private: When in doubt, don’t let it out. Seems like good advice for parents, too.

[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed.]

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About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates (www.southamptonpsychiatric.com) which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Do Tell, Don’t Tell

  1. gw2 gold says:

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