Secrecy, Nondisclosure in Adolescence Explored: New Research Shows 'Stronger Manifestation of the Darker Side of Secrecy' among Younger Teenagers

By Dixon, Bruce K. | Clinical Psychiatry News, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Secrecy, Nondisclosure in Adolescence Explored: New Research Shows 'Stronger Manifestation of the Darker Side of Secrecy' among Younger Teenagers


Dixon, Bruce K., Clinical Psychiatry News


CHICAGO -- Until recently, research on secrecy in adolescence focused largely on the emotional and physical costs of hiding misdeeds or risky behavior from parents.

But an investigation conducted a few years ago into both the advantages and disadvantages of secrecy in adolescence found quite different results.

That study, undertaken by Dr. Catrin Finkenauer and her colleagues in the Netherlands, found that adolescents who keep secrets from parents clearly contributed to the adolescents' overall feeling of emotional autonomy.

Those advantages of keeping secrets were seen even after controlling for the influence of disclosure, quality of the parent-child relationship, frequency of contact with friends and peers, depressive mood, and physical complaints such as headaches, stomachaches, and nausea.

"Secrecy should contribute to the process of individuation among children and adolescents," Dr. Finkenauer and her colleagues wrote (J. Youth Adolesc. 2002;31:123-36).

However, three studies presented at a meeting sponsored by the Society for Research on Adolescence lend support to the notion that secrecy and nondisclosure are most damaging in early adolescence. The studies also back up the finding that such secrecy and nondisclosure are potentially beneficial to developing autonomy in the late teens.

In a longitudinal study, Dutch researchers conducted four annual interviews with more than 300 students, beginning at age 13 years. They reported that younger adolescents who hid information from their parents tended to internalize problems and to have less self-concept clarity and poor individuation, according to Loes Keijsers, Ph.D.

Furthermore, keeping secrets was associated with externalizing problems throughout the four years of adolescence studied, said Dr. Keijsers, research associate at the University of Utrecht (the Netherlands).

"Initially, children with the highest secrecy scores also had the highest depression scores, and in later adolescence, secrecy no longer predicted depression," she reported.

She added that secrecy was related to anxiety only in the early teens. "There seemed to be a stronger manifestation of the darker side of secrecy in early adolescence."

In addition, adolescents were more likely to keep secrets if they had unsatisfactory relationships with their parents, although secrecy increased through the four years in both low- and high-satisfaction groups, Dr. Keijsers said.

In highly satisfying parent-child relationships, secrecy was a negative influence on self-concept clarity, which was the opposite of what the investigators had hypothesized, she said. However, as the participants got older, that effect diminished and by age 16, secrecy was positively linked to self-concept clarity in high-satisfaction families.

In addition, a correlation was found between secrecy and aggression, in that adolescents who were more aggressive had more secrets, Dr. Keijsers said.

"Secrecy predicted aggression over time, so that the children that had relatively more secrets at age 13 were likely to be higher in their aggression scores at each of the following intervals."

The study also confirmed that secrecy from parents had much stronger consequences than did disclosure. Tom Frijns, Ph.D., who conducted a separate analysis of the data for a poster presentation, said he separated "disclosure and secrecy, and found that it's actually secrecy that has all the predictive power regarding externalizing and internalizing problems."

And as had been suggested by earlier research, secrecy and nondisclosure increase over time, and secrecy was more prevalent among boys.

Further, relationship quality was related to secrecy and nondisclosure only among girls.

"Overall, it's what kids don't tell their parents that predicts their maladjustment. They want autonomy faster than their parents are willing to grant it, so they claim it by keeping more secrets about their activities," Dr. …

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