Parents.com's 'Ask Your Mom' advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., explains how to take steps to support your stepchild in a way that preserves trust in the family.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
February 14, 2020
Illustration by Emma Darvick

Dear Secrets,

I hope we have come a long way from the days of the "evil stepmother" trope, because in this day and age of so many blended families, stepparenting is not uncommon. Even as it has become more normal and less villainous, the relationship between stepparent and stepchild can be complicated.

Clearly, your stepchild trusts you (sometimes hard-earned), which means you have built a close relationship. It's a tough balance, though, because marriage also relies on trust as a key part of being stable and healthy. It sounds like an impossible position to feel like you have to swap trust from one relationship to the other.

When my kids ask me to "not tell Daddy" for minor confessions, I remind them that he and I do not keep secrets from each other because we work together as their parents. This usually ends up with a request that I tell him when we are alone, particularly with one of our children who appears especially vulnerable to embarrassment. I will comply with this request, usually followed by Daddy bringing it up with them as an opportunity to show them how he can listen and support them, even if Mom is the initial go-to parent.

You mention a "huge secret," so I'm guessing this may be more profound than my children's embarrassing moments. I don't know your relationship history with your stepchild, but most step-family relationships are simply different from the biological relationship that starts with a child at Day Zero. You may have had ups and downs in developing the relationship, and feel like the trust needs loving care to keep growing. This all makes sense why you would consider keeping a "huge secret" from your spouse—but there's a lot to consider.

Be Empathetic

In general, as tempting as secrecy can be to avoid conflict or other problems in relationships, it erodes the foundations of these relationships. You can express gratitude to your child that they are trusting you, and show empathy about wanting to keep a secret, while also encouraging openness and honesty with their biological parent. If you explain to your stepchild your own discomfort keeping the secret, it models for them the importance of trust between spouses as well.

Ask Why

Since your stepchild clearly trusts you, you can use this to explore the reasons for secrecy. Ask them, what are they afraid will happen if their biological parent knows the secret? What do they need to feel more prepared to disclose? You can offer to role play the conversation or to be present at the actual conversation, for support. Maybe you even have tips for how to present the secret in a way that will be most effective for your spouse's style and personality.

Make Safety a Priority

A huge caveat to this advice: safety concerns. If you believe that revealing this secret would put the child in harm's way, safety comes first. For example, if they disclose gay or transgender identity that could result in being kicked out of the home, other strategies would come before sharing the secret, like starting family therapy sessions or accessing other supportive resources. You are still in a tough position, but you can also be an instrumental part of the solution by helping steer the family ship in the right direction.

Strategize a Conversation

If safety is not a factor, I suggest you and your stepchild come up with a plan to share the secret. If you go through the steps of figuring out the reasons why they don't want to tell their biological parent, problem-solve with them, and if they still refuse, you can give them a deadline before you disclose the secret. This will allow them time to process what you have talked about, which may be a lot to digest, and hopefully come to understand all the reasons the secret needs to come out.

The worst-case scenario is that you end up telling your spouse with the child fighting it every last step, and feeling like you are putting your relationship with them at risk. But again, you are also balancing your marriage! Think of how your spouse would feel finding out later that you harbored a "huge secret" about his child, because let's be honest, secrets usually eventually spill. And that would be an even bigger mess.

The Bottom Line

As parents, we have to take positions that feel painful in the moment, but we know are better for our children long-term. In this situation, you are teaching your child that trust in families does not include secrets, but plenty of love and support.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns. 

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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