Study takes close look at how teens and young adults share secrets

November 30, 2000

A new study finds that the secrets teens and young adults tell are remarkably similar - regardless of the family structure in which they live: original, single-parent or "blended."

Contrary to popular belief and fairy tales, which see blended and single-parent families as significantly different from, even inferior to, original families, researchers have found that for at least one form of family communication - secrets - there's very little difference between these family structures.

So says John P. Caughlin, a professor of speech communication at the University of Illinois, and lead investigator in the study of intrafamily secrets. It is the first such study to demonstrate in a systematic manner that there are no big differences between the family groupings in terms of this one important communication process. "Our study looked hard for differences in secret keeping, and didn't find many," Caughlin said. The findings will be published in the next issue of Communication Studies. Using 650 college students from all three family types to explore the nature of communication "boundaries" and family structures, the researchers found no differences in the number of secrets the students perceived, the topics of those secrets or the perceived functions of the secrets. In addition, they found that all participants were more likely to tell their original siblings the secret than they were to tell their parents, and that regardless of family type, participants' family satisfaction was inversely related to their perceptions that their family had a comparatively high number of family secrets.

A few differences did emerge: Original parents in blended families were more likely than parents in nuclear families to know students' secrets, and original siblings in blended families were more likely than siblings in nuclear families to know the secret. This suggests that blended families have more complicated boundary networks, but doesn't imply that they are inherently problematic or deficient. Stepparents shouldn't worry when their stepteens don't share their secrets with them, Caughlin hastens to add, noting that teens living with original parents often don't share secrets either. "Keeping secrets is part of growing up, and people shouldn't assume that it means their stepfamily is dysfunctional - or any more dysfunctional than other families."

The discovery of strong similarities across the various family configurations has "potentially important implications" for how different family forms are studied, Caughlin said.

In the past, researchers have resisted comparing family types because they have bought into a "deficit model" theory in which nuclear families are regarded as the standard family, the blended and single-parent family as incomplete, imperfect or inferior versions of the norm. The current study, however, demonstrates that such comparisons "can identify ways in which family functioning is the same in different family configurations."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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