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Telling Secrets in the Other Home

How do you deal with a child who is sharing private information with an ex?
By Ron L. Deal


There are a few unwritten codes of conduct common among most families. One is that family members don’t share unflattering or personal information with outsiders. You don’t talk about dad’s bathroom habits; you don’t post a picture of mom’s morning hair on Instagram; and you don’t use one another’s vulnerabilities as fodder for gossip with the neighbors.

It really is interesting when you think about it; this “rule” isn’t written anywhere, but most of us abide by it.

Most of us.

What do you do if a child in a stepfamily is telling secrets … in the other home?

Inside betrayal

Sometimes children are like an “inside man” who carries embarrassing or unwanted information. For example, Sherry wrote to me about her 11-year-old stepson. “It has come to my attention,” she said, “that he is going back to his mom’s house after every visit telling her the ins and outs of our marriage and arguments. We have a good marriage, but we argue like any couple. We try not to do it in front of the children, but it is not always possible. She throws the information back in our face. I feel like there is a spy in my own home.”

Every dilemma like this begs the question, “Why does he do this?” There are many possible explanations: 

  • The stepson may be caretaking for his depressed, low-functioning mother with a quick “pick-me-up” bit of gossip, especially about a stepparent. If so, this type of behavior usually escalates if mom’s depressed mood worsens or she is going through a particularly difficult time.
  • He may be using the information to win his mother’s favor for selfish reasons. He gives her what she wants and she gives him what he wants. 
  • The stepson may have been hurt by his father or stepmother. Maybe this is payback for dad’s behavior or lack of faithfulness to the family.
  • Maybe it’s all of the above. 

But more important than knowing why is knowing what to do.

Getting direct 

I often find in situations like these that both the biological parent and stepparent tend to blame the biological parent in the other home. They believe the solution is to deal directly with that parent—She must be putting the kids up to this; we have to confront her.

However, in my experience, if the other parent is pressuring the child, rarely does talking to him or her result in any support or cooperation. Like in the example above, she has her agenda and she’s going to stick to it. Plus, it could be that the child is coming up with this behavior by himself and the mother isn’t to blame. It’s tough to know.

So it’s better to deal directly with the child who is sharing the information. And it might be best if the biological parent—in the above case, the dad—takes the lead in communicating the following.

“Son, because I love you and want to trust you, I need to ask you to please stop telling your mother about my marriage or our personal family business. It’s not for you to tell. You’re hurting my feelings by doing so; please stop. I realize you may have your reasons for telling your mother things. I can appreciate that you may be trying to make her feel better. But it is doing us harm. Please stop.” [Pause for response.]

“I’m wondering if you feel pressured to tell her things. If she is asking or pressuring you for information, it would be really hard at this point to disappoint her and not share anything. So, I’m wondering how you are going to handle that in the future. Let’s talk about it because I’d like to help you have a plan for what you’re going to do.” 

Discuss and script a possible response for your child: “Sorry, Mom. I shouldn’t share things about your life with them so I don’t think I should tell you anything about Dad’s marriage anymore.”

Then finish the conversation by saying something like, “Is there anything else you’d like to discuss while we’re talking about this stuff? I love you.”

The essential strategy here is being gentle while assertively communicating the harm being done and your expectations for change. A compassionate delivery is also necessary as most kids who are telling secrets already feel caught between their parents and likely feel guilty for what they are doing. Nevertheless, they still need to hear that it is hurting your feelings.

When balanced with compassion, a conversation to help your children develop a plan to not tell secrets any more will be a blessing to them—and you.

Copyright © 2015 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.



Meet the Author: Ron L. Deal

Ron Deal

Ron Deal is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is founder and president of Smart Stepfamilies™ and director of FamilyLife Blended™, the ministry initiative of FamilyLife® to stepfamilies (for more visit www.RonDeal.org and www.FamilyLife.com). 

Ron is author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (and DVD series), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (with Dr. David Olson). A highly sought-after, recognized expert in marriage and blended families, Ron is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with over 25 years experience in local church ministry and family ministry consulting. He is a featured expert on the video curriculum Single and Parenting (2011, Church Initiative) and his material is widely distributed by a variety of family education initiatives

Ron served as a member of the Couple Checkup Research Team (headed by Dr. David Olson, PREPARE-ENRICH) which conducted the two largest studies of marital strength ever accomplished. They surveyed over 100,000 marriages and remarriages (over 200,000 people) and examined the qualitative differences between highly satisfied marriages and low-quality marriages. The results of their groundbreaking research for couples are published in the books The Couple Checkup (Olson, Larson, & Olson-Sigg, 2008) and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (Deal & Olson, 2015), and are featured in Ron’s newest seminar for dating, engaged, married, and remarried couples, the Couple Checkup Conference.

Ron is a popular conference speaker and has appeared in dozens of national radio and TV broadcasts both in the U.S. and Canada. His daily 60-second radio feature, FamilyLife Blended, is heard by thousands each week around the country and online. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC’s Nightline, WGN-News, The Mike Huckabee Show, FamilyLife Today, Focus on the Family, HomeWord with Jim Burns, Celebration, and The 700 Club, and his work has been referenced online (e.g., ABCNews.com, Today.com), in magazines (e.g., Essence), and in newspapers throughout the world (e.g., USA Today, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal, and Minnesota Star Tribune). The May 2012 issue of Ladies' Home Journal featured Ron's therapy work with a blended family couple in their popular feature column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Ron has written feature family articles addressing a variety of family matters for a variety of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family magazine, ParentLife, The Family Room, Gospel Today, Christianity Today, and HomeLife magazine. On a regular basis Ron trains therapists, marriage educators, and ministry professionals at conferences around the country and has spoken at the National Stepfamily Conference, and the Utah and Arkansas Governors' conferences on the family.

Ron and his wife, Nan, have three boys. Their middle son, Connor, died unexpectedly in February 2009 at the age of 12. In his memory, the Deal's have partnered with Touch a Life Foundation to rescue and rehabilitate children in Ghana, West Africa, from trafficking. They would be honored if you would help them sing Connor's song. Visit Connor's Song to learn more about this ministry and to hear Connor sing.

In addition to FamilyLife sponsored events Ron is available to present his Couple Checkup Conference or Building A Successful Stepfamily conference in your church or community. Learn more here.

 

 

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