Navigating your child’s transition from adolescence to adulthood is complicated. One of the most complicated questions we face involves trying to navigate what is your responsibility, and what is theirs. Gone are the clearer-cut days of knowing when it is time for you to let your kid brush their own teeth, make their own bed, or even help make dinner. Older adolescence is fraught with much more complicated variations of this question. How much independence do they need to grow, and how much can you handle giving them while also remaining sane? To what degree should we let our child fail? Then, there’s the question I want to talk about today: how do we empower our adolescent children to be safe in their relationships and friendships when the other person is in crisis?
If you’re anything like me, you love hearing when kids overshare. I get really tickled when I hear little kids share really private and personal stories about their family members, and they have no idea the lines they just crossed. Although we may hear less of it directly, this is still happening in your child’s adolescent friendships. Kids tell their friends about the domestic violence at their home. Your child overhears someone talking about their dad’s excessive drinking. Someone texts your child that they are considering killing themselves.
The kind of connection and comradery that is built in the landscape of adolescence is almost unparalleled, so it is unsurprising that some of the most difficult, disturbing, and deviant experiences kids have get shared with their friends. Sharing stories and keeping secrets does, in fact, build trust like few other things can. As our kids start learning how to have more emotionally mature relationships with other people, we want them to learn how to be trustworthy friends. This means that we don’t want them to have to share everything they hear with us. But where is the line between secrets your child should keep, and secrets that they need to share, even when it could risk their friendship?
Distinguish between different kinds of danger
Our kids are going to keep secrets from us. When our kids our little, we teach them to tell us anything someone asks them to keep secret. We do this to protect them, and to keep them from falling prey to a dangerous situation. But as our kids mature, they start to understand some of the nuances between “good” secrets and “bad” secrets. It’s easier for our children to understand that it’s okay to keep the name of their friend’s crush a secret or to promise never to tell anyone else that they saw their friend shoot snot out of their nose when they sneezed. These are generally harmless secrets.
It may even be easy for your child to know when they have to tell someone about what they have heard, such as if their friend has been abused or assaulted, or if they know that someone is planning to harm themselves or others. But what about the more complicated secrets? The “in-between” secrets?
“You have to promise not to tell my mom and dad that I’m smoking pot. It would get so much worse for me at home if they knew.”
“I don’t know how to not feel depressed. Sometimes when I cut, I feel a little better. But you have to promise not to tell so that no one makes me stop.”
“I gave our other friend my anti-depressants. I don’t need them anymore, and her parents refuse to let her go to therapy. If they ever found out, they would ground her forever and she’d never get help.”
These are complicated situations even for adults to navigate, and we have to equip our kids to not have to navigate them alone. One way to do this is to keep an open conversation about okay and not okay secrets. Whenever I see adolescents in therapy, their parents and I talk about secret-keeping. They agree that my sessions with their kids can be secret, but first I promise them that I will let them know if I ever find out that their child is engaging in a dangerous behavior. I tell the parents that I will immediately inform them of immediately dangerous behavior, such as plans and intent to commit suicide, using hard drugs, or having unprotected sex. I then draw a line and say that if their child tells me they are engaging in risky, but not immediately threatening behavior, like superficial self-harm or vaping, I will give their child a two week grace period to tell their parents on their own and then I will check in to make sure they were informed. I distinguish between safe and unsafe secrets, and even outline when immediate action is required.
You don’t need to have this formal of a conversation with your child and their friends, but I do think that this kind of distinction between different kinds of secrets and different levels of danger are important to make. One way to help encourage your kids to share dangerous secrets is to help them understand that sometimes getting an adult involved is the most loving thing they can do for their friend. Yes, there are always possible nuances and exceptions. There are, in fact, some situations where children are put at more risk by sharing their secrets, such as in the case of children living in abusive homes. But no child should hold the weight of that kind of secret squarely on their shoulders. It is not our child’s responsibility to have to protect their friend from that kind of danger; an adult needs to take the responsibility for them.
Be sensitive to the risks of your child
When you describe the different kinds of secrets that are okay to keep and need to be shared, it’s important to remember the real risks of both sharing and keeping secrets. Sometimes, a friend will appreciate a secret told at the right time in order to ensure their safety. Other times, our kids know that they are making the very real choice between making sure their friend is safe and keeping the friendship. If your child ever finds themselves in a situation in which they have to betray the trust of a friend in order to keep them safe, they will need your support. Be sure to talk about your child’s friend with concern and respect. Yes, they may be doing something stupid, but save the judgment for later. Your first job is to be a trustworthy space for your kids to come to. And even better, enlist another adult in your life and name them as “the other safe adult.” Maybe this is a cool uncle or neighbor. It doesn’t really matter, as long as both you and your teen find this adult to be trustworthy and safe. Talking about secrets early and often will help them know that you are there for them and are willing to help them walk through the muddy waters with them. Risking a friendship is serious business for our kids, so take their concerns seriously. Relational death can feel just as scary as actual physical danger.
It is important for you, the parent, to do some work as well. Do you know what would you do if your child told you that their friend was about to commit suicide, take drugs, or go steal a car? If not, take some time to consider your options. You can ask your child what their ideas are as well so that they can be involved in the decision making, but it will help if you have an idea of who you would call or how you might address the situation.
It’s scary when our children start to encounter very real adult-sized problems, and evaluating secrets is one of those problems. If we are not a safe place for them to come to, they end up trying to solve these problems alone. Our children should never have to feel fully responsible for keeping another teen safe. It is our responsibility to communicate to our children that we are ready and willing to share in or shoulder that responsibility for them.
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