Keeping secrets from parents

Please don’t tell my parents, but…

I never asked my adult children or their spouses, “If your child asked me not to tell you something, what do you want me to say?” I did not ask because I would never agree to do that. I wouldn’t do it, because I wouldn’t want to jeopardize the trust in my relationship with my adult child. End of story.

Until now. This matter has been raised at several speaking engagements, where grandparents have said “but I treasure my special bond with my grandchild,” or “but my grandchild feels comfortable talking to me,” or “but what if the kid really needs to talk to someone they can trust?” Especially during the teenage years, where the peer group is most often where a child gets their ideas or shares their inner most concerns and secrets, I sensed a gray area—that grandparents wanted to be there if a child needed help.

Three Generational Trust: When a grandchild asks you to keep a secret from their parent.

I began to waiver on my firm point of view of “don’t ever ask me not to tell your parents” to the realization that this is an opportunity to support a grandchild who may be dealing with some tough matters. But, I also knew it was very important to have a discussion with my adult children, to lay the ground rules that are acceptable to them, in advance. I asked the parents of my six grandchildren what they thought.

“We have raised our children to be honest and moral people and we can’t imagine them doing any of the things you said,” said my daughter-in-law, a psychiatrist. I hesitated for a few seconds and then said “shall I help you remember some things your husband did as a teenager, like…” We all sort of giggled. “Mom–Dad we trust your judgment,” my daughter-in-law continued, pondering where she would draw the line. “If it’s a tattoo on her butt, I guess I don’t need to know, but if she’s suicidal, taking drugs, drinking alcohol, anything that might harm her, we need to know right away.”

These conversations changed my position. Now I say I will listen to what you have to say and if you are in any danger to your own health and safety or that of other people, I will probably tell your parents. If you are drinking, using drugs, you are pregnant or got a girl pregnant or you ask me for money for an abortion-I would talk to your parents. But a step in between there would be asking my grandchild “I wonder why you cannot discuss these or any other matter with your Mom or Dad?” I will help my grandchild think through how he or she would talk about this with their parents, but within a clear time frame that we can agree on.

When is the right time to have the conversation with the parents? The earlier the better-or ideally before this ever comes up. When the grandkids are young, the topics might be “mommy was mean to me” or “I broke Sammy’s helicopter.” It’s easy at this tender age to help them find the words to talk to their parent or apologize to their brother. But as kids age, the issues become harder. The important thing is to talk to the parents and set the parameters when children are young—when the idea of underage drinking or STD’s or other things that come with growing up are not even imaginable.

“MY child would never do that,” they might say. “Guess what, they might, so just indulge me,” I answer.

Creating an intergenerational environment where people feel comfortable sharing and trusting, where there is communication between members of families is so important. This conversation with adult children can help set that parameter, both in terms of what grandchildren are telling grandparents, as well as when or if your child wants you to share stories from their own childhood—because grandkids may ask. Know which stories are okay and which are off-limits. For example the time your child almost died from alcohol poisoning at a party? “I may or may not tell my kids, but, mom and dad, I’d like to be the one to do it when the time is right.”

It’s reassuring that my grandkids have a place they can go to talk about issues. And knowing from my children their expectations, it’s not complicated. Trust has to go in all directions. If my grandchild said “don’t tell mom.” I say, I won’t, unless it’s endangering you or others. Now let’s talk, and let’s also talk about why you feel you can’t tell mom or dad.”

Has this come up in your family? What are the topics? How have you handled it?