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If you are the parent of a child aged nine and up, you are already aware of the shift in perspective that happens in the preteen years. Suddenly, peers and friendships take on more importance than before.  While your child still values your opinion, you certainly are no longer the center of your child’s social world. Her friends are. And with this shift comes a need to keep from you some of what’s going on.

You won’t be told everything. Your child will keep from you things that he thinks should be secret. He won’t tell you things that are just between him and his friends. And this, obviously, can be a problem, because he is not yet a good judge of what he can handle and what you need to know.

Keeping secrets becomes something of an obsession in the preteen years. This is the age of the locked diary, after all. Mystery, intrigue, and hidden information of all sorts attract older elementary school students. Being able to keep a secret is a mark of self-control and competence and kids this age know it.

So children in the preteen years are likely to keep secrets. In addition, your child’s friends may make her pledge to keep a secret. Your child may be burdened not only with secrets of her own but with the secrets of others and the weight of a promise not to tell.

Couple this interest in secrets and the power of children’s social relationships with a preteen’s growing awareness of adult issues and sexual vulnerability and it’s obvious that a kid can get in over his head pretty quickly. Keeping secrets becomes a trap. Even if he is not personally involved in his friends’ worries, hearing about them and pledging to keep them secret can cause your child problems. Research has shown that adolescents who keep secrets and cannot unburden themselves to a trusted adult are more anxious and troubled than children who are not.

You cannot derail the interest in secrets. But you can keep the lines of communication open. Do this in two ways:

Even with this sort of advance planning, you will stumble on secrets your child is keeping from you. What should you do then?

Which brings up the question, should you snoop? Should you read your child’s diary, go through her desk drawers, search her computer? Maybe. If you really and truly have cause for concern, if you think your child is considering suicide, for example, or is acting erratically, then searching for clues might be the wise thing to do. It might save your child’s life. But keep in mind that your relationship with your child is built on trust. Whatever you do that erodes that trust has potential to erode your relationship.

Keeping secrets can become a trap. It’s the mechanism on which pedophiles, bullies and abusers rely.  It’s the place where feelings can spiral out of control and lead to catastrophic consequences.

Help your child and your child’s friends know the difference between secrets that are fun to keep and secrets that must be shared.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at

Maybe you have reason to believe your teen is doing something she shouldn’t do.

Maybe you wonder what your teen is up to online.

Maybe you’re just curious…

Every teen’s parent faces this question: should you snoop? Here are some things to consider before you do.

  1. What are you afraid of? Is there really any basis for thinking your child might be up to no good? Is there really any danger your child will get into big trouble if no one intervenes? If you don’t have any evidence but simply believe there must be something going on, then don’t snoop. If you do have evidence, then go to Step Two.
  2. Have you asked? Talk to your child. Ask him about what’s worrying you. Let him explain his position on the issue and describe his involvement or not. If after a conversation, you still want to see what’s in his top dresser drawer or on his Facebook page, ask for permission. Ask him to show you what you want to see.
  3. Explain your position. Consider that you may not have made your opinion clear on underage drinking, pornography, or “friending” everyone who asks. If this is the case, then now is the time to have a heart-to-heart talk about what you believe and why. This conversation may not stop behavior that is already underway but it at least sends the message that you’re concerned and you do have a position.
  4. Model what you want to see. Do you want your teen to snoop on you? Do you want your child to be open and honest with you or do you want to create a sort of spy vs spy relationship? Difficult as it might be to let your child make mistakes, ruining the trust he has in you is a big mistake too. To be trusted with your teen’s most dangerous secrets, you must first be trustworthy.
  5. Think back to your own teen years. Did you keep secrets from your parents? Are there things you did – maybe things you’re ashamed of now – that your parents would have been dismayed to know? Try to put your own child’s adolescence in perspective. If you survived, probably your kid will too.

The temptation to snoop comes from the best part of ourselves, our desire to be helpful and to keep our child from harm. At some point, though, we must step back and let our kids grow up. This might be that point, right now.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson.  All rights reserved.