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?
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.
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.