Q. My children’s father has a very bad temper. Over the years my kids have asked me, “Don’t to tell Dad,” for fear he would get angry. I have kept a few minor things in confidence, but now my 15-year-old daughter has debilitating cramps when she is on her period and her doctor has prescribed birth control pills to control the problematic symptoms she faces each month. She has asked me, “Don’t tell Dad.” She does not want to discuss her period with him, and she thinks he won’t believe the pills are to control her periods, but to prevent pregnancy. My daughter is not sexually active, and embarrassed, and I don’t know how to handle this. I think her father has the right to know, but if I tell him I will be betraying my daughter. What’s good ex-etiquette?
A. The problem you’re facing is not exclusive to co-parents. Parents who live together face the same sort of, “Don’t tell Mom or Dad,” when a child thinks one of their parents will be angry or disappointed in something they have done. But, when this request is made after a parental breakup, parents frequently misconstrue what is meant when their child asks, “Please don’t tell Dad/Mom.”
Since there is often an unspoken “my house vs. your house” sort of atmosphere, what the parent in confidence hears is, “I’m telling you a secret because I like you best. I trust you more. Don’t let me down.” And, after all the trials of the breakup, that confidence feels like vindication, so the secret is often kept, the parent then telling themselves, “I’m the best parent. I know my child best.”
But, often, that’s not what the child is saying. Children know their family dynamic. They know which parent will call them out and which parent will run defense for them and when parents live in two separate homes and rarely check in with each other, the child learns very quickly how to manipulate the situation.
Plus, as children grow into their teens, they tend to gravitate to the like gendered parent for just the reason you have cited in your question — she doesn’t want to talk about her period with dad. Boys have similar issues with mom. So many parents take this preference personally, and it’s just biology.
You set precedent when you kept a few minor things in confidence. A child will constantly test the waters. When you do this, sooner or later, you’ll find yourself having to choose: your daughter or your co-parent. That’s a miserable place to be.
There are ways to approach this without betraying your child or your co-parent:
1. Check your mindset: Remember, it’s not you and the child against dad or mom. It’s dad and mom together for the child.
2. Don’t let a child believe you will keep something from their other parent — and don’t expect your child to keep secrets for you, either. “Be honest and straight forward” is Good Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 8 for just this reason.
3. If a parent or child feels uncomfortable confiding, try enlisting the help of a trusted third party. A clergy person, therapist, or as in this case, the doctor who prescribed the birth control pills can explain to dad why the prescription was made.
Once you lay the proper groundwork, try something like,
“Honey, your dad loves you and is concerned about your welfare. If you feel uncomfortable, we can talk to him together and we can even get Dr. Smith to weigh in to help your dad understand why the prescription is necessary.”
There may be a confidentiality issue, even if your child is 15, and your daughter may have to waive her right to confidentiality before either parent can talk to the doctor privately about birth control, but talking to the doctor will take the pressure off your daughter and educate dad. It’s a win/win, and that’s good ex-etiquette.
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