Now ten years after the heartbreaking Columbine High tragedy, Susan Klebold has written an essay about her agony and her search for answers about her son’s involvement. Her powerful and painful essay appears in the November 2009 edition of O: The Oprah Magazine. I was drawn to read it. As a veteran family therapist and mother of three highly independent children who were in their teens in 1999, I know that most children can or will keep secrets from their parents.
I consider myself an active and attentive mother and have maintained excellent relationships with my children. In fact, especially during their teen years, I felt like what I knew was more than I cared to know; but my three still had secrets they kept from me. Now that they are all twenty-something, new secrets from their childhood continue to emerge as stories of adventure, but not to me – to me they are pretty scary. I had absolutely no idea. How could I not know? Fortunately, no irreversible impact or tragedy has resulted from their secretive behavior as kids.
I have also learned about the secrets other kids keep, when their parents have brought them to me for therapy. And these are caring parents. While many of the parents had discovered the secrets themselves only because something went wrong, others remained out of the information loop concerning the turmoil, high-risk behavior, and emotional distress their kids experienced. Consistent with professional and legal guidelines, when providing therapy to minor clients I have always disclosed the secretive information as necessary. The secret stories are numerous. Here are composite examples with specifics altered.
Between the ages of 12 and 14, one child snuck out her bedroom window many nights for liaisons with girls and boys her age. At 16, a boy took frequent 500-mile overnight road trips, while he duped his parents into believing he was staying at close friends’ homes. Another teenager had been sexually active with over 12 different partners in a year, while her parents were convinced she was still a virgin. Another child’s parents had no idea that their teen daughter was sexually active, much less that she had had a legal abortion with the help of an older relative. A gay teen boy had discovered his sexuality and become sexually active at 13 with older partners, with his parents totally unaware. Untold numbers of parents have not known of their child’s ongoing suicidal ideations, despite regular family interaction. And secret online lives can be difficult to discover.
Countless juvenile therapy clients have lamented to me that their parents do not really know who they are. They struggle internally, for different reasons, with becoming more honest and emotionally open with their parents. Adolescents often lead double lives – one visible and acceptable to their parents and the other for themselves. Keeping secrets is the key.
On top of the secrets that are kept from us, we as parents also do not control what our children learn – only what we teach. Lots of underage kids regularly drink dangerously and take drugs without parents ever finding out the scope. These kids may adhere to parental lessons – call if they need a ride, no questions asked; have a designated driver; don’t drink and drive – only to engage in toxic levels of drinking via trendy drinking games, believing these are “safe” because they are engaged in while staying in and not driving. One boy learned from his father how to start vegetable seeds indoors with an electric blanket and a grow light. As a teenager, he secretly used that knowledge to grow his personal stash of marijuana plants at home, in the attic and under his bed. The secrets kids keep are endless.
Secrets (along with the naturally clever manipulations and convincing lies told to parents to preserve secrets) are one power tool that kids use to set a boundary with parents. Realistically, kids tell lies and keep secrets for the same reasons that adults do; but they have enhanced reasons for doing so during adolescence. The generic goals of secrets and lies are to maintain privacy, safeguard opportunities to make choices without risking parental intervention or disapproval, and stay out of trouble. Secrets can be a very strong, impenetrable boundary between kids and their parents. Secrets are not kept only from those “bad” parents who do not care or pay attention. When mental health problems are added to an adolescent’s developmental plate, secrets reinforced with lies can quickly become deadly.
In the aftermath of “somebody else’s” tragedy, like Columbine, many parents may quietly console themselves with the judgmental posture of “not-my-kid-I-would-know” or “how-could-a-parent-not-know.” I respond, maybe so, but then – maybe not.