Do you promise not to tell?

“If I tell you something do you promise to keep it a secret?” is one of those questions that can cause great turmoil for parents. They understand that their child is asking for help, but they are appropriately reluctant to guarantee confidentiality.

Here’s the dilemma. If you agree to those conditions, you may need to break your child’s trust by revealing a secret. If you don’t agree, you risk your child walking away without discussing something important.

It’s a quandary for child psychologist when these situations come up in therapy sessions. I typically review with parents and kids what I can and cannot keep confidential. I inform kids that I am required to reveal things about child abuse or safety issues but will keep other issues private.

The more troublesome challenges involve teens talking about their drug usage, sexual behavior, or feelings of anger or depression. Kids need to feel safe exploring some very personal and intense issues, which they typically will not do if they feel a therapist will simply repeat their conversations to their parents.

Here’s how to handle this question with your child.

  1.  Never agree to keep something secret from your spouse. This is one of those trust terminators in a marriage. If your child says she wants to say something to you but “don’t tell dad,” that is really a test of your relationship with your spouse.  Inform your child that you and your spouse are in a loving relationship where secrets are not kept. If your child attempts emotional blackmail by then refusing to talk, just walk away.
  2. Don’t immediately answer your child’s question about keeping something a secret. Ask lots of questions, trying to encourage your child to explain more about the situation. Try to figure out whether their issue involves a safety concern that you must disclose to others.When I talk about these topics with kids in my office, I am very specific about what I can keep in confidence. For most teens, I will tell them that I will not disclose information about their sexual behavior (unless it is with an adult), drug usage, stealing, or intense feelings towards their parents or others. I also promise them that if something does need to be disclosed, I will give them the first opportunity to reveal it to their parents.
  3. Encourage your child’s communication. It’s hard to talk about personal feelings or experiences with others. Praise your child for their willingness to take a risk and connect with you. Don’t try to rush to some solution to their problem, but encourage them to think about the situation from different perspectives and help them develop their own plan.
  4. Just say no. Never promise confidentiality unless you know exactly what it is that you are agreeing to keep secret.
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We have created this blog as a way to communicate key childrens' health and safety issues to parents and other child advocates. It is managed by Dayton Children's department of marketing communications. Comments can be sent to rodneyg@childrensdayton.org.

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