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Using Discretion When Talking About Your Teen

Why It Is Important To Use Discretion and Honor Your Teen's Secrets

Remember when your precious baby made the honor roll? Did you race off to tell everyone you knew? What about when you took her to buy her first bra? Did you describe the little pink bow on the front to your mother, your sisters, your friend Peggy from down the street and anyone else who would listen? If this sounds like you, listen up, because now that your "baby" is a teen, your little habit of blabbing the going-ons of her life could cause her to keep secrets from you and create a big rift in your relationship.

Isn't It My Right?

"I can discuss things that are happening in my daughter's life whenever I want," says Sheila Nichols, the mother of a 16-year-old. "I'm the mother; she's the child."

This type of thinking is very common. As parents, we feel it's our right to be able to tell others whatever we please about our children. But Susan Ginsberg, parenting expert and author of Family Wisdom: The 2,000 Most Important Things Ever Said About Parenting, Children and Family Life (Columbia University Press, 1996), disagrees. "Kids are entitled to a certain amount of privacy," she says.

Home should be a place where teens feel safe to be themselves without worrying that someone (least of all, a parent) is going to spill their secrets to outsiders.

Sometimes It's Hard

"It's nearly impossible to talk about your kids without saying something they wouldn't want you to," says Devy Stone of Canada. Stone enjoys talking about her kids and says it's hard not to spill everything, but she does use discretion. And discretion is the key to finding the balance between general chatter and harmful blabbing.

No one can deny bragging about their teen getting all A's on a report card or winning a talent show. That's just part of being a proud parent. And teens usually don't have a problem with that. However, problems arise when parents take it to the next level by telling others things that will either hurt, embarrass or anger their teen.

"When I told my mom I was having sex, she told everyone in the family," says Miranda*, 17. "Not only was I embarrassed, I also realized I can't trust her."

Karen Gordon, an Oregon mother of a 15-year-old, says teens shouldn't have to tell parents what to keep to themselves. "Even though my son doesn't qualify his conversations as 'Don't tell anyone this,' I'm careful in what I pass on to others."

Leni Kass of Illinois, the mother of a 14-year-old, says it's all about knowing your child. "If my daughter is wrestling with an issue that's causing her stress or pain, I won't add to that burden by causing her to worry that everyone knows what she's going through," she says.

Everyone? Yes, everyone. "As soon as you tell one person, they tell others," Ginsberg says. And your teen is bound to find out.

What You Can't Handle or Don't Know

"Sometimes there are things you don't understand or don't know how to handle, so you have to talk to others," says Debra Clark of Dallas, Texas, mother of three teen girls.

Parents do get advice from others, but there are ways to get this insight without ruining your relationship with your teen. Kass says she goes to only her closest friends, those who have her teen's best interests at heart. Gilda Carle, relationship expert and author of Teen Talk with Dr. Gilda: A Girl's Guide to Dating (Quill, 2003), agrees and suggests asking yourself what new information this person can offer and whether you're looking for support in understanding how to handle your teen or hoping to become friendlier with this person by telling family secrets.

If this person can't offer useful information, there's really no reason they should know. And using details of your teen's life to bond with others is just plain selfish and will usually destroy the bond that matters most: the one with your teen.

Sometimes It's OK to Spill

One exception to the hush-hush rule, according to Kelley Hunsicker of South Carolina, mother of three sons, is criminal activity. "If the secret was a criminal act or someone was hurt as a result of the secret, then it shouldn't be kept," she says.

Though it's strongly debated as to whether parents should turn their children in for crime-related activity, for Hunsicker there's no question. "Helping your children become criminals is not acceptable, and by keeping the secret you are condoning the act," she says.

Another rule-breaker involves divorced parents. "On occasion, I've shared things with my son's dad, which I feel a father should know or would know if he was around his son every day," Gordon says. This type of sharing is essential in relationships where the teen doesn't see one of the parents often. By giving the other parent a heads-up, you're helping to make the issue easier to handle should it surface unexpectedly.

Straining the Relationship

It's hard for teens to trust, especially adults and authoritative figures. So when your teen trusts you enough to confide in you about something that's going on in her life, it really means something. "My mom and I have a very close relationship," says Gina*, 15. "I feel like I can tell her anything."

Because some things teens tell their parents can lead to embarrassment, rumors and even bad reputations, it's easy to see how trust is a major factor in whether or not a teen talks to her parents. "If I thought she was telling other people what I've told her, I'd keep it to myself," Gina says.

Without trust, your relationship will unravel quickly. "The more discussion parents have with their children, the more bonded they are," Carle says. If you're discussing things your teen has told you with others, you can bet your teen won't be telling you anything else.

Regaining the Trust

Once a parent has lost a child's trust, it's very hard to rebuild. But that doesn't mean you should give up. Carle says that with good communication any breach of trust can be healed. If you're a parent who's trying to rebuild your teen's trust, she suggests you do the following:

  • Admit you made a mistake.
  • Ask what you can do to show you're sorry.
  • Talk about how you can mend the relationship in the future.

Though it may be hard, it's vital that you apologize and show you can be trusted. That means no blabbing, even about small things. By showing your teen that you aren't going to spill even her smallest secrets, you'll ultimately be showing that you can be trusted. Regaining trust is a slow and taxing process, so it's best to avoid it by not losing it in the first place.

Next time you find yourself itching to tell your neighbor the shocking thing your daughter told you last night, ask yourself: Is this worth straining my relationship with my child? Probably not.

*Last name withheld to protect privacy.

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