The Dangers of Keeping Secrets

in: Featured Article | Growth and Development | Health and Safety

Keeping secrets can be hard for a child. But it can also be bad for her health. Here’s why.

back of a young girl in the classroom whispering into a boys ear
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Whether it’s about a secret crush, something a sibling confided or that they didn’t do the homework they said they did, most kids have plenty of secrets floating around the recesses of their brain. But those secrets—especially the really juicy ones—can be making your child sick, threatening not only his brain’s health, but his entire well-being.

Neuroscience experts say confessing a secret, instead of holding them in, prevents the brain from a sticky situation. That’s because no matter the size of the secret, the brain’s cingulate cortex, the part of the brain involved in emotional responses, desperately wants to tell the truth. This “logical lobe” tells the rest of your child’s brain to dish the secretive dirt because it wants to move on to other more important things like learning and keeping your child’s body running smoothly.

But standing in the way is the orbital prefrontal cortex, another part of the brain involved in decision-making, complex thought and deception, says Gopal Chopra, M.D., a neurosurgeon and CEO of PINGMD, a medical message app. When keeping a secret, this region simulates just how bad telling the secret will be—and all the possible negative outcomes related to unlocking the secret. “And if the prefrontal cortex wins this war raging in the brain, the body ramps up production of stress hormones.”

That means every time your child thinks about the secret, those hormones surge throughout his body and negatively impact things like blood pressure and memory. The bigger or riskier a child perceives the secret to be, the more intense the fight in their head and resulting anxiety, says Chopra.

The production of these hormones returns to normal levels when stress falls away.

So keeping a secret is as much a war of the lobes as it is a question of ethics or morals. But it’s also a health risk.

“When a child is stressed, sleep may be disturbed, which could lead to emotional mood swings and a propensity to be ill-tempered. They may also have difficulty with memory and learning,” says Allen Towfigh, M.D., a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Cornell Medical Center.

Why We’re Secretive
So what is it about human nature that makes kids and adults alike keep secrets despite the risk?

Secrets are a part of human nature. “We keep secrets because, even when it’s risky [to our health], we believe there is greater risk in the disclosure of a secret. We decide that the disclosure of the secret will be more painful to us than keeping it hidden,” says Peter Zafirides, M.D., a psychiatrist in Columbus, Ohio.

But not all secrets are bad. Some things are important to keep secret, like a present, the surprise of a good report card, etc. “As long as a secret isn’t hurting the secret keeper or anyone else, or isn’t perceived by the keeper as being a bad thing, a secret won’t be hazardous to health.”

Managing Secret Stress
Zafirides says one way to teach kids how to manage the stress of keeping secrets is helping them learn whether the information truly warrants privacy. “Take time to help them analyze the reasons they’re keeping something secret and the consequences of disclosing it,” he says.

Kids need to know that others’ reactions to a secret are often much less dramatic than we imagine in our minds. “Help them assess the potential implications of disclosing something very embarrassing,” says Zafirides. “Many people find the reasons we may keep some secrets earlier in life may not be as relevant as we think.”

It may be helpful to encourage older kids to write out the pros and cons of keeping a secret, including why they’re are keeping it in. “There is no real physiologic explanation to this, but behavioral studies have shown dramatic reduction in stress hormone levels, blood pressure and mental health by doing this,” says Chopra.

Above all else, it’s crucial that parents differentiate for their children a good secret from a bad secret. An upcoming surprise party? That’s a good secret. Knowing about someone who may be in danger or if a child has been violated by a stranger? That’s definitely one to share with a trusted loved one.

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