Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Elizabeth Donovan M.A.
Elizabeth Donovan M.A.

Pssst...Why Is My Teen Keeping Secrets From Me?

The secrets teens keep and why they keep them.

Parents are typically shocked when they discover that their teen is keeping secrets from them. You instantly ponder questions like: Why would she keep this from me? Doesn't she trust me? Suddenly parents begin to question the relationship with their teen and the very existence of the trust they once shared. Let me ease the pain by assuring you that it's not only normal, but also an important part of human nature to keep secrets from those we care about.

Secret keeping develops in early childhood when children learn to differentiate secrets according to their benefits and consequences. Keeping certain secrets from parents can be adventitious while others can be more damaging. Since children do not begin to individuate from their parents during the early stages of human development, they are more likely to disclose their secrets to trusted family members. However, by early adolescence, teens are acutely aware that secrecy allows them to create their own identity which often requires keeping specific information from their parents. Thus, the concept of secrecy among parents and adolescents can be controversial depending on the content of the secret, the individual or group keeping the secret, and the underlying motivation for absolute secrecy.

The Role of Secret Keeping:

Every generation of teens has it's trials and tribulations, but there is little doubt that today's teenagers face more challenges and obstacles than ever before. The onslaught of technology and the communicative veil of secrecy it provides gives rise to a myriad of secret-keeping behavior among adolescents. Social networking sites provide the ultimate opportunity to "get around" telling mom or dad what's really going on by taking advantage of their parents lack of "expertise" in this area. Text speak and instant messaging give teens additional opportunities to express themselves in the privacy of the online world. For parents, keeping up with things like "who's friending who" on Facebook can provide grueling challenges.

The media plays a key role in how teens decide when to keep secrets, when to disclose them, and who to disclose them to. Many teens gravitate to programs like ABC Family's The Secret Life of the American Teenager because they can directly relate to the dilemmas and feelings of the characters secrets. The series has a large teen following because it addresses adolescent issues that are often hidden from prying parental eyes such as teen pregnancy, alcohol abuse, and dating dilemmas. Despite the downside of media, it's important to note that depending on the program, TV and other mediums can be benefitial by helping them differentiate between which secrets are appropriate to keep from their parents and which ones are not.

Family dynamics can also determine whether or not teens chose to disclose information to their parents, but so does coming of age. One of the most important developmental tasks of adolescence requires a certain amount of privacy and risk. After all, teens are in the process of trying to form their own identity separate from their parents. Keeping secrets is often an important way teens learn to make their own decisions and face their own mistakes.

Top Five Secrets Your Teen Won't Tell You:

Regardless of how close your relationship is with your teen or how adept you are at decoding texting messages, there are a few secrets teens keep that are "too big" for them to remain silent. These secrets can be life-threatening and can compromise your teens physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. The list below encompasses the most prevalent secrets I've heard recently from adolescents, but there are certainly more that may be included.

  • Eating disorders
  • Sexting

Motivations for Secret Keeping:

Shame and guilt provide compelling motives for keeping difficult secrets such as sexual assault and eating disorders but they are not the only reasons teens remain silent. Despite their eye rolling, door slamming, and verbal insistence that they don't want their parents advice, teens actually do. In many cases the biggest deterrent for teens is risking their parents disapproval or disappointment. This fear is common among teens and brought on by doubt, low self esteem, and the insecurity of youth. To be fair to teens, there are times when telling parents about difficult secrets can be especially devastating and harmful such as when family members are the abusers or when parents truly are not able to deal with important topics maturely and lovingly. In these cases, the hope is that teens will be able to disclose their secret to someone outside their family like a teacher or friend they trust.

In addition, studies have indicated that the motivation for secrecy among teens and their parents is not defined by family structure alone. Many believe that single or blended families breed more secret keeping among teens that result in a more dysfunctional family system. Yet a recent study by the University of Illinois found that intrafamily secrets among original, single-parent, and blended families are all remarkably similar in terms of teens habits of secret keeping and there is no significant increase in secrets from any of these family groupings. The bottom line seems to be that it's how parents approach and build trust with their teens that effects secret keeping rather than whether or not they have a traditional family structure.

Why Teens Should Keep Some Secrets:

It goes without saying that teens should report the 'big' issues to their parents or at least to someone they know and trust, but there are times when secrets can be a healthy option. Every teen needs their privacy and a space to call their own whether it's their bedroom or their Facebook "wall." It's not a parents job to police every movement, thought, or behavior that their teenager exhibits unless their self-destructive behavior warrants it.

The line parents must walk between invading their teens privacy and giving them the independence they crave is murky at best. Many parents understandably struggle with giving up control over their children and are concerned that their teens are harboring dangerous, self-destructive secrets. As a general rule I tell parents that whenever possible, resist snooping through your teens dresser drawers or underneath her bed searching for "weapons of mass destruction" unless you have a strong, concrete reason to believe your teen is in trouble. It's helpful to think about it this way, there should be a direct link between the amount of consistency, responsibility and integrity teens demonstrate and the amount of privacy they're entitled to. In short, your job is to learn how to effectively discriminate between big secrets and lesser offenses in accordance with the "maturity" level of your teen. For example, you don't need to read your teens texts to her girlfriend about what type of Victoria's Secret panties they want to buy at the mall, but you do need to know if she's sneaking laxatives or vomiting as a means to lose weight. If you suspect your teen's hiding a troubling secret or engaging in dangerous high risk behavior, parents have an obligation to protect their children from themselves, even if they don't want the protection. The reality is that behind their oppositional masks and hidden secrets, most teens desperately want their parents to know whats going on in their lives and, when necessary, to help them through it.

About the Author
Elizabeth Donovan M.A.

Elizabeth Donovan, M.A., is a psychotherapist and writer. Her work has appeared in magazines including BabyTalk, Parents, and Parenting.

More from Elizabeth Donovan M.A.
More from Psychology Today
More from Elizabeth Donovan M.A.
More from Psychology Today