When Is It OK for Therapists to Encourage Kids to Keep Secrets from Parents?

Is it customary for a therapist to encourage children in therapy to keep secrets from their parents? When is this appropriate? Thank you. —Out of the Loop
Dear Out of the Loop,

Great question—simply and clearly put—and I enjoy thinking about it. Thank you. I’m afraid my answer is going to be pretty long, though, because the question touches on a variety of issues.

Let’s start with the difference between secrecy and privacy. I’d like to keep my weight private. But if I wear a body stocking sometimes, that’s my secret because I’m a little ashamed about it. Someone else might not be. The contents of my email are private and I don’t want my husband to read them—even if I don’t keep any deep and dark secrets from him. My diary is private, and may contain a few secrets too; I don’t want anyone to read it. Sometimes privacy and secrecy overlap. Clearly, what’s private and what’s secret varies from one person to the next, but the development of boundaries of what is private grows with a child’s increasing independence from his or her parents. A child might ask the therapist, “Can I tell you a secret?” but really mean “Can I trust you? Can I tell you something that you will keep private?”

Privacy between people, called confidentiality when it refers to communications between therapist and client, is a prime value in therapy—the therapist under most circumstances must keep everything said in session private so the client can speak freely. This rule is a bit different when working with minors.

First off, there are legal issues which apply to minors in therapy. Minors are unable to consent to treatment; their parents consent on their behalf. There are exceptions to this (minors who are married or in the armed services), but generally anyone under the age of 18 is not legally able to make treatment decisions. A parent who consents to treatment for a minor child has the legal right to know the content of the child’s treatment. For more information, please consult this American Psychological Association page: http://www.apa.org/monitor/mar02/confidentiality.aspx. Reports on content may be more or less detailed, depending on the agreements the parents, child, and therapist have made with one another. Often, a general sense of progress or lack thereof is reported; specifics may not be.

Privacy issues in clinical practice are not as clear as the legalities are. The child needs privacy, and needs to be able to speak freely and know that the parents will not be told about what is said, in order to foster independent growth. Children’s needs for privacy grow as they mature, and the therapist might encourage the child to develop personal boundaries about what the parents (and others) should know and what they do not need to know—what should be kept private. This seems to conflict with the law.

To preserve clarity, remain within legal boundaries, and protect the child /client, therapists should make clear at the outset of treatment what the therapist’s relationship will be with the child and with the parent and how information will be shared—in short, who will know what and when. Clearly, as the child matures this will change—people need more privacy as their independence and individuality develop. When this happens, the therapist will meet with parent and child to explain that the structure previously agreed upon must be adjusted.

At the same time, the therapist cannot promise the child that all information will be kept private if it is felt helpful to the child to tell the parent. If the therapist feels the parent may harm the child as a result of information the therapist might report, the therapist should seek legal advice. The therapist is mandated to report indications of possible harm to the client or others; neglect or abuse must be reported in most states. This applies to both children and adults.

All my best,
Lynn

Lynn Somerstein
Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT is a Manhattan-based, licensed psychotherapist with more than 30 years in private practice. She is also a yoga teacher and student of Ayuveda—the Indian science of wellness. Her main interest is in helping people find healthy ways of living, loving, and working in the particular combination that works best for them, connecting to their deepest energic source so their full range of abilities can be expressed. Lynn's specialty is understanding and alleviating anxiety and depression.
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  • amy h

    amy h

    July 13th, 2013 at 4:46 AM

    Thank you so much for this information. For about the last 9 months I have been taking my daughter to see a counselor because of some mean girl kind of issues that started pretty shortly after the beginning of the last school year. She was having such a horrible time, she hated school and this was not her at all, and she just seemd so despondent so we got started working with her guidance counselor at school to address things happening in house as well as someone private to address all of the self esteem issues that were being raised.

    This lady has been such a wonderful resource for us, and I know that my daughter confides things to her that she wouldn’t to me. But I am alright with that. I feel that she is giving my child some wonderful tools for how to handle these situations as well as making her feel comfortable confiding in her.

    In the time she has gone to counseling I have witnessed a wonderful change in my child, and if that means that there are a few things that I don’t know about, as long as the two of them are deevloping a strategy to work on those, then I am great with that.

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    July 13th, 2013 at 11:28 AM

    Amy, thanks for sharing your experience, and for having read the article Sounds like you and your child are doing very well. I’m pleased and happy.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Colleen

    Colleen

    July 13th, 2013 at 11:38 AM

    I don’t think that a good therapist is going to refer to this as keeping secrets.
    This is simply the same kind of agreement to confidentiality that they would employ for any of their patients.
    Just because a child is a child doesn’t mean that they need to have a safe setting in which they can vent and be heard, same as adults do.
    A good parent as well as a good therapist is going to give them the room to have this and to explore it within the realm of helping this child feel secure as well as resolve any problems that they are experiencing that has brought them there.

  • brandi

    brandi

    July 13th, 2013 at 11:24 PM

    unless the disclosure is about abuse or neglect I dont think a therapist should hold anything back from the parents.the parents in turn can act innocent and not confront the child from what they learnt from the therapist.this makes things transparent and keep the child happy.what do the others think?

  • alan

    alan

    July 14th, 2013 at 10:11 PM

    if keeping parents out of the loop on a few things is better for the child then why not!not all parents can be as good or as understanding to most disclosures.this is a tough call but I’d say its okay for a therapist to hold a few things back.

  • Jena

    Jena

    July 15th, 2013 at 4:20 AM

    I am sorry, but I disagree with brandi. I think that if the therapist is convinced that the child is safe there are some things that kids say that are sacred. They are expecting this person to help them learn to communicate better with parents but I don’t think that this means they have to tell the parents everything. I think that if the therapist does this then the therapist has lost the trust that he or she has worked to build with the child.

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