Secrets vs. Surprises: The Danger of Secrets
By Kendall Wolz
Mental Health and Wellness Manager
“Don’t tell ______. It’s a secret.”
“I’ll only tell you if you can keep it a secret.”
“This is our little secret, you better not tell anyone- or else.”
Secrets are dangerous. Secrets are heavy. Secrets hurt.
Most of us grew up with secrets. I definitely remember keeping secrets with my friends and siblings in early elementary school and even throughout middle and high school. Whether it was a secret about kissing a boy on the playground or about my plans for my next trick to play on my siblings, my secrets seemed fairly innocent and inconsequential. It was not until I was threatened with serious harm or death that I found myself inside the prison secrets create.
“This is our little secret, you better not tell anyone- or else.” -My Abuser
When my abuser sternly uttered those words after we watched the first episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in August 1999, I knew exactly what he meant when he told me this was our secret. I also knew what he was implying when he said “or else.” I was consumed with making sure I kept this secret. I worked hard at making everything look normal. I did not say things that would cause one to question me about my secret. In health class, I did not dare make eye contact with the teacher when we talked about the chapter in our textbook on abuse.
Take a moment and think about a secret you have been holding?
A secret about something in your life or in someone else’s life.
What is the weight of holding that secret?
At a young age, many of us learn that secrets are things you do not break. If you tell a secret, someone gets mad at you or someone gets in trouble. Secrets are meant to be unspoken.
My secret placed me in a prison that was filled with pain, isolation, loneliness, worry, fear, and immense hopelessness. Breaking that secret only occurred when I was more afraid of keeping the secret than sharing it with another person. Breaking the secret is the only way I escaped the prison my abuser built.
I wholeheartedly believe that we should live a life without secrets. But, how is this possible when secrets are normalized and it seems to be a routine part of growing up?
A while back, I came across an incredible graphic from The Mama Bear Effect which distinguishes between secrets and surprises. It is included at the end of this post; however, I would like to add another category to consider. Privacy.
So, what does this mean for us and more importantly, what does this mean for the children in our lives?
Let’s look at secrets first.
Secrets are tactics abusers regularly employ to ensure a child will not disclose their criminal acts to someone else. Often, a threat is included with the instruction to keep a secret. In general, secrets are rarely positive, healthy, or encouraging. Research has identified 38 types of secrets that people tend to keep, ten of which are referenced in this Psychology Today article. As you can see from the list, many are painful. Most secrets are intended to be kept forever. We do not say, “okay, I’m going to keep this secret for two weeks.” Breaking a secret can feel dangerous and very frightening. There are major consequences for telling a secret. If the secret is ever revealed, it involves as few people possible.
Surprises are those things that we do not want someone to find out about, yet. We throw surprise parties and purchase gifts that will be the ultimate surprise. Surprises are usually positive and exciting. We may tell someone to keep a certain gift a secret from someone, but what we really mean is that we want them to keep it a surprise. Surprises are temporary and time limited. When we share the surprise, we typically invite multiple people to participate. We do have to exercise some caution with surprises because abusers may provide a child with a surprise (a gift or special time together) and then instruct that the “surprise” must be kept a secret from their family and friends. While it may seem strange to say “let’s keep this a surprise” because we are accustomed to using the word secret, it is something we should challenge ourselves to implement.
The next time you and the kids make or purchase a birthday present for someone, let’s teach the kids that we are making a surprise and when that person’s birthday arrives, that is when we can tell/show the person the surprise we made.
Private things or privacy is fluid. When we were children, we had very little privacy. Someone put us in bed, someone helped us in the bathroom, and someone helped us get dressed. As we got older, our privacy increased. We began shutting the door when we used the bathroom. We were able to talk on the telephone without a parent being in the room. We could use the computer on our own. We begin to learn what conversations are appropriate for which environments. Privacy for children and teens is a privilege. Parents increase and decrease the amount of privacy allowed in order to balance freedom and independence with safety and discipline. Privacy includes who is allowed into our houses and our bedrooms. Clothing keeps some of our body parts private, exercising modesty. Privacy will look different in each family.
Let’s empower our children by making a “No Secrets” rule in our families. Take away a tactic abusers use to control their victims and give that power to the children. Lift that burden of secrecy from a child’s arms so they do not grow weary and more frightened.
Let’s challenge ourselves to use the appropriate terminology. Am I asking someone to keep a secret or a surprise? Is this something that should stay private, or can it be publicized?
Most importantly, have regular, intentional, honest conversations about abuse with your child, encouraging them to always tell an adult when someone asks them to keep a secret.
For more information, I encourage you to check out the Mama Bear Effect for more resources.