Dear Dr. Sylvia

Is This Privacy Or Secrecy?

July, 2018


Our 9-year-old son is in the gifted program at school. He’s cheerful, empathetic, and gets along well with his younger brother. We feel very lucky to have him and enjoy his company.

When he was a preschooler, we had several incidents where he was upset about something but refused to say what was troubling him. When the trouble had passed, months or years later, he let me know that it was something a classmate had said about a monster or a scary book.

In second grade, his personality changed abruptly. I could tell that he was troubled. I was very upset and it became a family joke that I was always asking, “Are you worrying?” The school year ended, and he returned to his usual happy self. I assume it was his teacher or pressure in the classroom that was making him unhappy, but I’ll never know.

Last night, we had an incident where his father and I needed him to tell us something and he steadfastly refused, crying. I respect his privacy, but it worries me that he keeps things that upset him to himself, especially as life gets more complicated and, in some cases, dangerous. I want to be able to help him. We don’t understand why he won’t tell us; and his usually sweet, fun father is very angry and wants to punish him until he does. I think I have good parental instincts, but in this case I’m lost. Any help you can provide would be most appreciated.



 While some children are more open with their parents than others, no children tell parents everything. There are things your son is thinking about that you’ll never know because he’s a separate person from you. Furthermore, there may be worries he feels but doesn’t understand himself.

While it’s normal for you and his dad to want to be there for him if he’s worrying, he has to learn to solve some problems on his own. You’ve reassured him that you’re there to help him. Threats of punishment will only damage his trust in you or in himself.

Also remember that sometimes kids like to keep secrets. You can reassure him that secrets are all right as long as they’re not about things he shouldn’t be doing.

Why not start the dinner game where each member of the family talks about something good and bad that happened that day? In that way, your son will become accustomed to talking about his day. You’ll want to be careful not to overreact because someone has scared your son about monsters, for example. Lots of kids do things like that for fun, and a little reassurance before he goes to bed or some monster jokes that get the family laughing is probably all he’ll need.

If your son likes to write, encourage him to keep a journal or diary. Remind him that if he’s truly concerned about something and is afraid to tell you about it, he can talk to a counselor who can help him deal with the problem. Kids your son’s age often like to share worries with friends; and if they’re only minor concerns, that sharing can provide good social interaction. If your son is seriously worried, you’ll want to give him some private time to talk to you alone. When doing that, assure him that you’ll wait quietly while he gets his thoughts together. Sometimes parents do so much talking to their children that children lose courage while they’re waiting for some silence.


Dr Sylvia RimmDr. Sylvia Rimm is a child psychologist and clinical professor at Case University School of Medicine, author, newspaper and magazine columnist, and radio/TV personality. For a free newsletter entitled So Your Child is Gifted!, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope and a note with your request to P.O. Box 32, Watertown, WI, 53094. Read Dr. Rimm’s articles on this topic and submit family questions online at All questions are answered.

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