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Laura McLaughlin, clinical therapist at HeadFirst Counseling in Dallas, Sound Advice column, why does my tween keep secrets?

Sound Advice: Why Does My Tween Keep Secrets?

How to open the lines of communication—without trying too hard

DFWChild reader Lanette of McKinney asks this burning parenting question, “I’ve tried to make it clear that my 10-year-old daughter can come to me about anything. But already I’m finding out that she is keeping things from me. What makes kids do this?”

So we reached out to Laura McLaughlin, child and adolescent therapist and founder of at HeadFirst Counseling in Dallas for answers:

Most parents worry when they discover that their child is keeping information from them, but this behavior can be very typical. Children have a developmental need to discover where their parents’ authority ends and where their own independence begins. Most parents first see this need emerge through defiant behavior—remember the “No!” phase with your toddler?—or lying and concealing information.

One way to help your child receive a sense of their own independence while maintaining expectations for open communication is to show that you are available to them while also giving them space. You could say, “I see that you have something on your mind. I am here if you want to talk.”

Continue to give your child space and build trust by demonstrating that you are accepting of their choice to talk or not.

Other examples include verbalizing their feelings and then giving space for your child to open up and add more context if they want to, such as, “It must be hard seeing two of your friends hanging out without you. Most kids would feel pretty jealous or hurt.” By labeling these vulnerable feelings, you show that you can handle talking to your child without rejecting, minimizing or dismissing them. When children feel heard, the flood gates will open.

One key point with adolescents—if you say something, mean it. If you tell your child that you are available if they want to talk, do not try to force a conversation or take it personally when your child chooses not to open up. Continue to give your child space and build trust by demonstrating that you are accepting of their choice to talk or not.

Another challenge parents often face is the temptation to jump right into problem-solving mode. Most children stop talking when the adult begins talking. Sometimes the best way to get a kiddo talking is to practice more active listening by reflecting or paraphrasing back what your child has said to communicate understanding.

As adults, we have the ability to problem-solve and see the big picture, and formulate a plan to make things better almost instantly. Children do not have this set of skills—yet. It’s something that will develop with time if they are given the opportunity. Focusing on active listening and refraining from attempting to problem-solve will help your child open up and work through their own solutions.

Modeling your own vulnerability is another great way to encourage children to open up. Let your child know when you felt hurt by a co-worker and what you did to make it better. Talk to them about your own disappointments when things don’t turn out the way you expected, or how you handled a sudden change or tackled a small fear. The more you talk about these common challenges, the more you are normalizing them and showing that it is OK for your child to talk about them too.

Withholding of information is common throughout all stages of childhood, but keeping these tips in mind should help encourage your child to come to you as a reliable confidant and help keep the communication pathways wide open.

Photo courtesy of HeadFirst Counseling in Dallas