Keeping youth safe: Surprises versus secrets

Help youth and adults understand the difference between surprises and secrets.

Girl telling a secret to another girl

The most important goal for adults, be that a parent, caregiver or volunteer, who work with youth is keeping children safe. We put up baby gates, require helmets to be worn during potentially dangerous activities and set rules like no texting while driving. One way we may not think to keep children safe is understanding boundaries. We may teach them social norms and niceties like shaking hands and saying, “Excuse me,” but it’s important that adults working with children and youth teach them about behaviors from others that are appropriate or inappropriate.

Helping youth understand the difference between surprises and secrets is a very important part of helping create safe environments for youth. First off, adults need to understand the difference between secrets and surprises. In fact, adults will often tell youth that something is a secret when it is actually a surprise. A secret is something that a person is not allowed to share with other people, ever. A surprise, on the other hand, is something you’re waiting to share with another person or group of people, like not telling mom about your plan to surprise her with breakfast in bed, not telling someone about a birthday present, or not sharing about an upcoming surprise party for a friend.

Telling a youth to keep a secret and to not tell their parents or another trusted adult may be a dangerous situation. Darkness to Light states that one in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday and 90% of children know their abuser. This is why it is so important to help youth understand that if an adult ever asks them to keep a secret, they need to tell someone, as adults should not be asking youth to keep a secret.

In order to help keep youth safe, adults need to talk about the difference between secrets and surprises so youth can identify when a situation is inappropriate. Explain to youth that if someone is asking them to keep a secret, they need to know the intentions behind the request. Why does it need to be a secret? Is it because the information can’t be shared with others yet, or is there a planned surprise for someone? If youth determine that it is just a surprise and others will find out a different time, they can keep that to themselves until the appropriate time. If asked to keep a secret, youth need to ask themselves some questions before deciding what to do:

  • Could someone (myself included) get hurt if I don’t tell?
  • Why do they want me to keep it a secret?
  • Is this information appropriate for an adult to be telling me (is it about sex or something an adult should not be talking to me about)?
  • How does my gut feel about this situation—is my intuition telling me something is off?

If a youth is unsure how they should handle the situation, encourage them to tell their parent or another adult about the secret. The next step is very important—it is crucial that you as a parent or caregiver commit to listening nonjudgmentally, engaging with the youth and helping them work through the problem. It’s more than just listening; the child needs you to show up for them during all parts of this process. Remind the child that even if an adult has asked them to keep a secret, they won’t get in trouble if they tell you. The adult needs to support the youth no matter what and follow through on any promises.

For more tips about creating safe environments, go to the Creating Safe Environments for Youth website and check out the Keep Kids Safe Series by Michigan State University Extension.

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