What you need to know about secrets.

Can you keep a secret?  That’s the question a lot of people ask before they share something personal. It could be about their crush, their relationship with another friend, or even an embarrassing moment they experienced during the school day. Regardless of what they’ve chosen to share, the fact that they want to share it with you shows that they have a lot of trust in you as a friend.

Maintaining trust is important if you want to hold on to good friendships. And that’s why it’s important to be confident in your secret-keeping skills before you let someone confide in you.

Keeping a secret can be really hard, especially when it reveals something surprising about another person. A lot of times, our impulses tell us to share big news that we think will be of interest to other people. You might feel tempted to spread a secret because you know it will bring you lots of attention from the other kids at school. You may want to bring it up to make your conversations more exciting, or so you’ll have something to talk about with someone you don’t know very well. But it’s important to keep in mind that spreading a person’s secrets is a form of gossip, and gossip can be very damaging to your friendships.

It’s hard to trust a person who gossips, especially when their gossip comes from other people’s secrets. It’s not tough to imagine why that is. Think about a secret that you wouldn’t want a lot of people knowing. Now, imagine how you would feel if one of your friends leaked that secret and it ended up spreading around the school. Even if your friend didn’t mean to embarrass you, you’d probably still be upset with him (or her) and you might think twice about trusting him in the future.

On the other hand, successfully keeping a secret for a friend can actually be helpful to the relationship. When your friends know they can trust you, they’ll feel comfortable opening up to you about what’s going on in their lives. This will allow you to have more meaningful conversations than you otherwise would.

But if your friends are going to confide in you, there are some things you should keep in mind…

  • Secrets are for your ears only. Even if your friend’s secret is one of the most exciting things you’ve ever heard; even if you know it would make for a great story to tell in class; even you feel like you’ll burst if you can’t immediately share it with someone, you’ve still got to keep it to yourself. If you know someone who you think would particularly enjoy or relate to something you’ve been told in confidence, you can ask your friend’s permission to share it. But if the answer is no, then the secret must stay quiet.
    • Exception: If you ever believe that someone will get hurt if you keep the secret, then you should share it with a trusted adult. Even if you think you might be overreacting, a parent, counselor or teacher can help you talk through the situation, without turning your friend’s secret into gossip.
  • Secrets are not meant to benefit you. If you’ve been asked to keep a secret, your friend is asking you to do something nice for them. In order to be a good friend, you’ve got to do nice things for others sometimes, even if you don’t know you’ll get anything in return. You should never threaten to tell someone’s secret in order to get your way. You also shouldn’t use the secret to gain attention from others. Any of these actions could cost you a friend, and you could end up losing more than you gain.
  • Honesty is always a good choice. It’s okay if you can’t keep a secret—as long as you make that clear before one is shared with you. If you get impulsive sometimes, or have a tendency of letting secrets “slip out” then you may want to suggest your friend confide in someone else.  It may be hard to resist learning something new or personal about your friend, but it will be better for the relationship in the long run if you are honest.

While sharing secrets with your friends can be a lot of fun, keeping them is a serious responsibility. Broken trust can be harmful to any relationship, and it can even mean the end of a friendship. If you’re not sure you’re ready to take on the responsibility of secret keeping, it’s okay to let your friend know. But if you are ready, remember to keep the secret all to yourself in order to show your friends that you can be counted on!

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Isa Marrs is the Founder and Executive Director of the Where I Can Be Me® social skills program. She is a board-certified speech-language pathologist who specializes in pragmatic language (social skills) disorders in children. Read More