Behind the secrets

There’s no telling what secrets your children will keep from you if you judge them harshly

mom surfing net with daughtersThese days, parents are forced to employ detective agencies to keep an eye on their teenage children because they do not know about their lives. These are parents of secretive children.

Their children, for some reason, are not comfortable sharing details of their lives with their parents, like Allen, who peddled drugs during his college years.

Although he was not a 'user', Allen did it to earn some extra money to spend on his rich girlfriend, who later broke off with him. After that, he started using the drugs himself. He now peddled to sustain his addiction.

His parents heard of his involvement with drugs for the first time at a police station when he was arrested with a group at a rave party. Allen's father was a school principal and his mother was involved in social service and church activities.

His upbringing was such that even while he was doing what he was doing, he knew that it was self-destructive. Yet, he went ahead with it as a choice and hid it from his parents because he didn't want to deal with detoxification and rehabilitation.

Chitra's family was orthodox. Her father was an authoritarian and mother, submissive. She was aware of how strongly her family reacted to anything that did not fit into their scheme of things.

She had seen her father's stern stance when her elder sister Komal had expressed her desire to marry a decent boy from a different caste. Komal was confined to the house. Her father even threatened suicide if Komal went ahead with the affair.

Her mother would cry hysterically because of the shame Komal had brought on the family. Chitra rebelled against her family on the sly by engaging in smoking and drinking. Once she lied about going to a college trip and spent the weekend with her boyfriend.

She had unprotected sex under the influence of alcohol. She got pregnant and had an abortion—all this without the knowledge of her parents. Not wanting to marry anyone else, her sister Komal committed suicide. Chitra was extremely depressed when she came to us.

We engaged them in family therapy to help them deal with the tragedy. We also helped the parents understand the circumstances that led to choices made by Komal and Chitra, and the reasons for Chitra's secret life.

Children do not disclose their lives to their parents because they are aware how unreasonable and self-destructive their choices are. They know that their parents will reason with them out of genuine concern. But the children do not want to hear the 'external' voice of reason, as they have muffled their own 'inner' voice of reason as in the case of Allen.

Another reason why children keep secrets is that they do not trust their rigid and inflexible parents to take a reasonable stance in any issue. They have experienced disproportionate reactions, and unreasonable and unilateral decisions made by parents with no scope to reason and negotiate.

Such children not only keep secrets, but also indiscriminately rebel against their parents' rigidities, sometimes against their own interest, as in the case of Chitra.

Children fear being judged harshly. They fear facing anger and rejection, or being mocked by their parents. Worse, they are scared of being distrusted and emotionally abandoned. They also keep things from their parents when they feel confused and ashamed like Sapna.

From the age of 10, Sapna witnessed her mother in compromising positions with her father's male friends when he was not home. She was confused as she saw her quiet and submissive father being completely normal with the same friends, and relating normally with her mother.

She wondered whether he knew and was ignoring it, or whether he was oblivious to what went on. It left her fearful and confused as she debated talking about it to her father and mother. Would her father distrust her? Would he laugh and dismiss it, thus giving his blessing to all that was happening?

Would it create problems between her parents? Would her mother get angry and abandon her emotionally? Sapna reeled under shame, anxiety, anger, depression. She harboured feelings of inadequacy within herself for being a child of such parents.

As a result, she held back from them—neither did she express herself on this matter, nor did she share with them anything else about her own life. Having made such unhealthy decisions for themselves, she felt that her parents were incapable of guiding her.

Help your children open up to you

  • Be a role model of effective living. Let your life be your witness, and your children a witness to it.
  • Create an environment of mutual respect with your children where you listen attentively and empathically to all they share without any judgment.
  • Be concerned and yet playful in your communication style so that you don't aggravate anxiety in your children when they share their concerns.
  • Create opportunities where they can casually share with you about their lives. Activities like listening to music together, going for a walk or a swim, chatting over dinner, playing a game your child enjoys, cooking together, chatting till late night in the dark while the child is going to sleep provide excellent opportunities to create a comfort level where they can talk uninhibited.
  • Use opportunities like a watching a TV show to initiate a discussion on a topic on which you could ask for your child's views and share your own.
  • When your child confesses to a wrongdoing, do not be 'react' 'respond'. Do not criticise, sermonise, analyse, or say, 'I told you so'. Instead, ask your child how s/he plans to turn things around, and what help s/he expects from you.

Cathy had been sexually molested by her father since she was 13 years old. At 14, when she first told her mother about the 'bad things' her father did, her mother reacted with a bitter outburst. She blamed Cathy for trying to ruin their marriage, accused her of maligning a sweet and hardworking father, and called her a characterless girl who fantasised about her father.

Cathy felt most unsafe in a place where she should have felt most safe—in the care of her biological mother. Cathy clamped up forever. She saw her mother as completely unreliable and undependable for her safety and security.

Her parental home was the most threatening place to her physical and emotional survival. She left home at the age of 15 never to return, and lived a life of anonymity. She kept her life a secret not only from her parents but from everyone else as well, as she could not bring herself to trust anyone.

She opened up much later in therapy when she was extremely depressed and had suicidal ideation.

On several occasions, Amit had seen his father touch his younger sister inappropriately. He had also seen his mother noticing the same but keeping quiet about it. His sense of shame and confusion with the warped attitudes and behaviours of his parents made him a secretive person forever.

He never shared anything with his parents about his academics, his friends, his career plans, his concerns, his dreams or aspirations. An uneasy distant relationship existed between them.

As you can see Sapna, Cathy and Amit could not rely on their parents. This created an unbridgeable divide between them. The parents in all these cases had made such unhealthy choices, had such a distorted scale of values, and had behaved so inappropriately, that the children almost felt like 'emotional orphans', and therefore kept their lives to themselves.

What we learn from these real life stories is that children need to feel emotionally safe and secure. They need to be able to trust that reason will prevail, and that negotiation is possible between them and their parents. Only such a relaxed and balanced environment will help them open up their lives to their parents, and help establish a healthy relationship where there is free, frank and fearless communication.

The world is not a safe place for our children—it's a world where drugs and violence are commonplace, where chances of sexual perversion and molestation are increasing, and where the tentacles of danger reach right into our households through the internet.

In this scenario, the only safety we can provide to our children is healthy values, which empower them when they are out in the real world.

For such communication to take place on a sustained basis, our children need to allow us to be a part of their world. This can happen only when they believe that we, as parents, are trustworthy, balanced, rational, loving, and are ourselves living effective lives. Remember, you impress by who you are and not by what you say.

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Minnu Bhonsle
Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.
Rajan Bhonsle
Rajan Bhonsle, MD, is a consultant in sexual medicine and counsellor. Along with his wife Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, who is a consulting psychotherapist and counsellor, he runs a unique therapy centre

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