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Do “Innocent” Secrets Hurt Kids?
“Innocent” secrets such as, “Don’t tell Mom I let you stay up late tonight because we’ll both get in trouble,” are confusing for children and can actually increase their vulnerability to sexual abuse, according to prevention experts.
How can this be? It turns out these “innocent” secrets are the very same secrets used by people who sexually abuse children.
It goes like this: Once the person who intends to sexually abuse a child has built a friendship (or already has inherent trust because he or she is the parent or relative), then the secrets start – a stream of them over time. This is actually part of what’s known as the “grooming” process, which takes place over a period of weeks or months – e.g.,
- First secret: “What do you say we have a couple of extra pieces of candy – and let’s not tell?”
- Second secret: “Let’s have another bowl ice cream, but don’t tell your mom because she’ll be mad at both of us, and won’t let me babysit you again.”
- Third secret: “It’s almost your bedtime but since we’re having so much fun, let’s stay up and watch another movie. This will be our little secret, right, since we’ve gotten to be such good friends.”
- Fourth secret: “Hey, I have an idea. Want to play a fun touching game? You tickle me and I tickle you. It can be our special secret.”
I think you see where this is going, and as the secrets progress, the child feels trapped and can’t tell.
Most sex offenders with whom I have spoken – men and women, in and out of prison – have told me that secrets, and getting a child to share in the secrets, is the foundation of abuse – and essential to maintaining subsequent silence.
So are parents unwittingly contributing to confusion for children around secrets? I think so. I’m not suggesting that all people who keep secrets with kids are grooming and offending. Of course not. But when safe people keep innocent secrets with kids, it makes it difficult for children to differentiate between safe and unsafe secrets.
Here’s what I recommend in the Parenting Safe Children Online Workshop, which helps parents keep kids safe from sexual abuse and nurture healthy sexual development:
- Teach children the difference between secrets and surprises. A secret is something that someone asks you “never” to tell and makes you feel uncomfortable. A surprise is something that makes you feel good and will come out into the open like a gift or a party.
- Maintain a “No secrets” policy in your home. Let your kids know that you don’t have secrets, only surprises. Instead of saying, “Don’t tell Mom I let you stay up tonight or we’ll both get into trouble,” you might say, “I’ll let you stay up late tonight and if Mom and I disagree about bedtime, we’ll work it out. It’s not your problem.”
- Let caregivers, including family members, coaches, teachers, and faith leaders, know that your child does not keep secrets and has permission to tell you everything.
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, so take a moment to Check Your Knowledge about child sexual abuse.
Feather Berkower, LCSW, is founder of Parenting Safe Children and the Parenting Safe Children Online Workshop, and co-author of Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse. Feather has educated over 100,000 schoolchildren, parents, and professionals. She makes a difficult topic less scary, and empowers parents and communities to keep children safe.