Suma is a worried mother. Why is her teen so quiet and different from the bubbly, energetic child she used to be? The sparkling eyes, the long chatty conversations, the endless stories and tales about anything and everything, have given way to shifty eyes, monosyllabic answers, deflected questions. Rare are the warm smiles and stories. Why does she spend so much time by herself or with friends? Suma longs to know what her friends chat about, what they do when they hang out together, which teachers they make fun of. Suma is confused and sad that her daughter seems more like a stranger to her. What has caused these changes?
The attachments of childhood are expressed differently during the teens. This does not mean that the child loves the parent less. Given the powerful influences of changes in the brain structures, the onset of puberty, parental expectations and peer influences, teens are drawn towards an innate discovery of themselves as individuals. They are driven by big questions such as, ‘Who am I?’, ‘What is unique about me?’ and ‘Who should I become?’. These preoccupations draw them towards mental and emotional spaces deep within their secret selves.
While it is normal for teens to be secretive, we must differentiate between privacy and secrecy. Secrets are intriguing and mysterious. Young children share them with excitement and innocence. Older children begin to withhold sharing what they feel and experience, based on how beneficial it is to them. They actively use more complex thought processes to understand situations. The process heightens in teens when the brain is undergoing significant changes that make it more efficient, leading to selective sharing. Also, parenting attitudes and approaches play a significant role on how and why teens become secretive.
Top secrets that teens keep from their parents
- Crushes, infatuations, relationships, dating
- Substance experimentation – smoking, alcohol, drugs
- Sexual experimentation / masturbation
- Gender identity confusions
- Academic failures
- Bunking tuition classes
- Entertainment – adult movies and content, porn; parties; pubs
- Eating out – junk food
- How they spend sleep-overs
- Friends or secret group affiliations – anti-social, radical groups
Tips for parents to deal with their secretive adolescents
- Understand that some level of secrecy is normal and acceptable in teens. Their secrecy stems from the need to explore thoughts, ideas and feelings in the safety of their most personal space – the mind. An unhealthy sense of secrecy could arise from an authoritarian parenting style that discourages openness and sharing, or from the teen’s own exaggerated sense of shame and guilt.
- Explain clearly to your child, the difference between privacy and secrecy. Teens use interpretations interchangeably, often for convenience! Discuss together the boundaries of privacy. They are often overwhelmed with psychological pressures of safeguarding a friend’s secret and of sharing it with you. You may struggle to deal with the dilemma and social responsibility thrust upon you. An expert can help you do the right thing.
- Observe keenly. Giving teens their privacy is like walking a tight rope. The lines between secrecy and privacy blur. Keen, unobtrusive observation alerts parents to step in before something escalates to hard-to-manage, stressful proportions.
- Respect your teen’s privacy. Contain your curiosity and resist the temptation to pry into personal diaries, journals and phones, unless there is evidence that confirms your suspicions. Go with your gut feeling. Some parents are known to have breached the line, based on strong hunches, and have been able to intervene at the right time.
- Have lots of conversations about high-risk behaviours. Do not preach; rather, have insightful debates and healthy arguments. Advice does not let children use their critical thinking abilities. Teens are impulsive (as the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain is still under construction); they still lack skills in regulating their emotions and controlling impulsive behaviours. The best parents can do to enrich the child’s information is to lay bare the facts, examine things from various angles (a 360 degree view of things), and analyse and arrive at possible outcomes. When push comes to shove, teens are more likely to use these critical skills to review their behaviour objectively and consider making changes.
- Stay connected. Let your teen know you are always there for support. There is no sure way of knowing what works well unless you give it a try. With some amount of trial and error, parents learn of patterns in their child – areas of sensitivity and resilience. Just don’t give up or hope that things will change. You and your child are a work in progress!
- Build a family atmosphere of trust and openness. Begin by sharing your own stories and experiences to build an atmosphere of trust within the family. Some parents give clear messages to children about routine family events and happenings, to ‘not tell anyone’, either because of insecurities, negative feelings such as shame, fears of being judged or even cultural beliefs and superstitions. These messages can turn children into very private, asocial beings, with a predisposition to becoming secretive teens.
- Allow your teen to make decisions. She will share her thought processes with you only if she trusts that you will guide her non-intrusively. Her initial attempts may not have the best results. Turn her mistakes into teachable moments. Growing independence and setting limits are a tricky area for negotiation. Use your strengths, and hers, to spar over controversies. It opens her mind to new possibilities.
- Reiterate, model and reflect family values in all that you say and do. Values are mostly imbibed unconsciously from the child’s immediate environment. Much to the distress of parents, often those very values seem to disappear during teen years. This is because of a dizzy brew of youth, opportunities, the quest for independence, peer influences, testing new thoughts and ideas and an unwise decision! However, the values they grow up with will resurface in adult life.
- Be alert to any subtle or disturbing changes in behaviour. Do not hesitate to seek help and guidance from trusted people or professionals. At this point, when you will experience intense emotions, it’s not easy to figure out on your own, how to approach the child. A well-meaning but wrong move could destroy chances of building bridges with your child.
- Work through your feelings of distress about the disconnect with your teen. Reflecting on your own relationship with your parents when you were a teen, will give you vital clues to help you understand your current feelings about your teen’s changing behaviours.
- Take the time to settle yourself. Doubts and suspicions can drive us towards accusations and emotional outbursts. It’s common to go into the denial-mode and tell ourselves that things couldn’t be that bad, but you could lose valuable time. Verify as many facts as possible before confronting your child - not to attack but to use an effective approach where you express your concerns and ask how you can help her. Dialogue and conversations are the keys to opening deeper issues. Do not hesitate to intervene when you know that your child is being secretive about unsafe and threatening circumstances.
Build a warm, nurturing relationship with your child. It’s a sure neutraliser for the spikes and dips in parenting your teen. Repair the cracks in your relationship. Anticipate and be prepared; restore your balance as quickly as possible when the unpredictable happens. Get support from others. Learn from your mistakes, muster the courage to apologise for an indiscreet breach of privacy with your child and, finally, give yourself a pat on the back every time you get it right!
Arundhati Swamy is a counsellor and the Head of Parent Engagement Programs at ParentCircle.
Hope you liked this article. To get expert tips and read interesting articles on a wide variety of parenting topics, subscribe now to our magazine.