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The Importance of Self-Disclosure for Parents and Adolescents

The capacity to self-disclose to others is an important life skill for everyone.

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

A journalist recently asked me about the power and problems of self-disclosure for both parents and teenagers in their relationships. What follows are some thoughts from that conversation.

Meant to be personally revealing, self-disclosure is a verbal process of spoken, signed, or written communication through which someone shares data about themselves with another person or with other people. The information can be current or historical, emotional or rational, factual or made-up.

Functions of Self-Disclosure

Self-disclosure can satisfy three needs to be known.

  • Self-disclosure allows a person to process an experience by making it a matter of internal dialogue, putting it in verbal form to identify what is going on. “I am feeling upset, and this is why.”
  • Self-disclosure allows a person to reach out for social support, for an attentive and empathetic listener. “It feels good to have someone know what is happening to me.”
  • Self-disclosure allows a person to become more deeply known in a relationship, feeling more intimately connected. “Confiding in each other brings us close.”

Inadequate self-disclosure can be costly.

  • Ignorance of one’s experience can create anxiety. “I don’t know what’s going on with me!”
  • The absence of social support can feel lonely. “There’s no one I can talk to.”
  • A lack of a confidante can feel estranging. “Nobody cares to know me well.”

Offline and Online Self-Disclosure

Even though offline and particularly online self-disclosure can sometimes create dangerous exposure, exploitation of sharing, and betrayal of confiding, the practice of self-disclosure is fundamentally healthy.

This being said, parents need to explain to their teenager how the rules and risks of self-disclosure offline and online are not the same. While you can confide offline with someone who you trust and expect that confidence to be kept, there is no confidentiality with online communication. So don’t trust or disclose anything online that you don’t want strangers to know and possibly exploit if they so choose.

Parental Self-Disclosure

Sometimes parents wonder about rules for what not to self-disclose and what not to self-disclose with their teenager. Consider several examples.

  • They probably should not self-disclose about normal frictions in the parental marriage.
  • They probably should self-disclose about their state of mood and mind after a long day at work, so the teenager doesn’t assume she or he is the irritable cause.
  • They probably should let the teenager know when they are going through a hard emotional time, but not to the degree that the young person is turned into a major source of emotional support, loading up as the parent unloads. It’s best to get outside help for that.

Self-Disclosure with Parents During Adolescence

Typically, parents find the child more self-disclosing than the adolescent who grows more protective. Why wouldn’t the teenager self-disclose? Perhaps the teenager discloses less to create more privacy from parents, sometimes based on the belief that they are best kept in the dark. “I tell my parents less so I can have more independence.” Not so. The more ignorant parents are, the more anxious they become, the more restrictive and over-reactive they are likely to be. Parents “keep best” when they are adequately and accurately informed, trusting not that they are told it all but told enough, and they need to tell this to their teenager.

Typically, parents are more self-disclosing with the child than the adolescent. Why wouldn’t the parent self-disclose? Not because they become more protective, but because they become more preoccupied. Now, keeping up with teenage changes during the more complicated adolescent years leaves them with less energy and inclination to share personal information with the adolescent. “We don’t have time to talk about ourselves when so much is going on with our teenager that needs attending to.” But this is a mistake.

What parents mostly have to give their child or adolescent is knowledge of who and how they are. Just as the teenager’s life story is part of their story, their story is part of the teenager’s story, and in a healthy relationship, both stories need to be told. To the degree that parents model self-disclosure, they can encourage their adolescents to practice this skill and follow their example. If they want their adolescent to self-disclose with them, then they need to model self-disclosure too. "Just to let you know, something similar happened to me at your age." Otherwise, you get that teenage complaint about one-way communication: “All my parents ever want to talk about is me!”

Asking for Self-Disclosure

Sometimes parents who are in need of more self-disclosure from their teenager will do what feels natural, but which turns out to be counterproductive. They will ask a direct question to find out what they wish to know, only to be told grudgingly little. What’s going on? Why the resentment?

For some adolescents, parental questions can feel offensive on two counts: they are invasive of privacy, they are emblematic of authority, and they are disliked on both counts. How can you get around this resentment? Give the young person the courtesy of your respect. Rather than charging in with a question to get the self-disclosure you want, consider making a request instead. “I would really appreciate it if you could explain to me what happened” or “It would really help ease my worry if you would be willing to tell me a little more.”

Is Self-Disclosure Sex-Linked?

To some degree, the adolescent predisposition to self-disclose seems to be sex-linked. In same-sex peer groups growing up, for example, females and males may be socialized somewhat differently around self-disclosure – girls can be accustomed to talking more with each other, boys accustomed to talking less with each other.

While girls may share emotional experiences with each other, using this confiding to create intimacy, boys may share their activities with each other, using comradery to create companionship. Confiding and companionship both create closeness, but intimacy requires more self-disclosure. Thus teenage girls may be more practiced at self-disclosure (the stereotype of the sensitive and sharing female) and teenage boys may be more practiced being self-concealed (the stereotype of the strong and silent male.)

Sometimes, you can see this difference play out in families as parents become different kinds of helpful resources for their teenagers. “If I have something practical that needs fixing, I go to my dad; if I’m hurting and need a good listen, I go to my mom.” In each case, the teenager self-discloses a need, but the support being sought is quite different.

The Importance of Sufficient Self-Disclosure

Why let your self be known? To be unknown leaves you solitary and alone. Self-disclosure is a life survival skill. Ask a teenager this salient question: “Who do you have to talk to about yourself?” Not your parents? Not your friends? Not your teachers? No one? Social isolation and personal suffering can make a very unhappy mix.

Young people who are unable or unwilling to self-disclose may live isolated from those around them, socially disconnected on that account. Now internal dialogue can engender distortion: worrying can inflame anxiety, self-pity can worsen grievances, suspicion can erode trust, fear can jump to alarming conclusions, anger can motivate blame, desperation can lead to harmful acting out that, had it been available, talking out might have prevented.

If you have a teenager who keeps entirely to her or himself, sometimes counseling can open that young person up.

Fear of Self-Disclosure

For some adolescents there can be times, whether because of concerns for shame or for safety, they become reluctant to self-disclose experiencing harm to parents, when that, in fact, is what they need to do. A common example is when the middle school student is being subjected to significant social cruelty (teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, or ganging up) but because of the code of the schoolyard ("don't snitch on peers"), the young person doesn't tell their parents. The parents only observe more reluctance getting ready for school and more unhappiness when coming home.

Parents need to declare: "Middle school can be a time when you see more social meanness going on among students. Just like we hope you'll always tell us if you are in danger or suffering, should school ever become unsafe, please let us know so we can be there to support you."

Self-Help Groups and Self-Disclosure

Worth mentioning in closing for parents is an appreciation of the self-help group phenomenon. Based on shared self-disclosure and usually fee-free, these meetings can have a lot to offer. Attend and you need not be alone. Fellowship is available. If you listen, you may learn from the experience of others. If you choose to self-disclose to strangers, not only will you receive an attentive and empathetic response, but others may learn from what you share. Twelve-step groups are an early model of self-disclosure groups that have proved very helpful to many people over the years. "When our teenager's life was being disorganized by substance use, going to Al-Anon meetings really helped us keep our emotional footing during an upsetting time."