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Family secrecy: a comparative study of juvenile sex offenders and youth with conduct disorders

Amy Baker

Further, hints exist in the clinical literature that families of sexual offenders are rife with secrecy. As Johnson (1988) reported anecdotally, "Important things were kept secret from members of the family. Some parents had other children of which current children were not aware; in some cases children were unaware of previous husbands of their mothers; incarcerations were kept secret, although the person had been living in the house at the time they were sentenced to jail. Parents made up stories about persons who disappeared, or children were told not to ask questions" (p. 11).

Family systems theory (Imber-Black, 1998) suggests that children intuitively know that secrets are being kept from them. The room may become hushed when they enter; the topic of conversation may suddenly change when they are within earshot; inconsistencies in family stories may become apparent. Youth may not know the content of the secret, but it is very likely that they know of the secret's existence. As Bowen (1978) observed, children have an inexplicable awareness of unspoken parental concerns, felt throughout the emotional life of the family. Pincus and Dare (1978) also noted that children exhibit an unconscious awareness of the secrets in their own acting-out behavior. Thus, we hypothesize that family secrets are transmitted through the generations as part of a style of family relating (Herz-Brown, 1991). Consistent with Bowenian transgenerational family therapy theory (1978), we hypothesize that family secrets may be transmitted across generations through the creation of triangles and lack of differentiation among family-of-origin members, which is perpetuated and replicated in subsequent generations through the choice of partners and through parenting styles. As Van Manen (1996) suggests, "the good deeds and the wrongdoings of one generation often live on in successive generations. An attitudinal tendency toward secretiveness and inwardness by parents is not infrequently passed on as a character trait to their children" (p. 5).

Our hypothesis that families of sex offenders will have more family secrecy and deception than comparison families is also based on the notion that family secrets may actually contribute to the development of sexual acting out. Family secrecy has many potential negative consequences for the normal development of children, including lack of intimacy, distorted reality, and feelings of powerlessness (Bowen, 1978; Imber-Black, 1993, 1998; Selvini, 1997). These three consequences of family secrecy are also common characteristics of sexual offenders.

According to Imber-Black (1998) and Karpel (1980) family secrets function in part to modulate intimacy and distance among family members. When children are raised in an environment of secrecy and deception, they feel cut-off and distant from the people most important to them as well as confused about how to develop close relationships based on honesty and trust. Family secrets create boundaries and alliances depending upon who does and does not know the secret. On this point, Eaker (1986) noted that, "Alliances and boundaries in the family are formulated on the basis of knowledge about the secret, which has the effect of isolating members from each other" (p. 237). Family secrets can also create a sense of separation from people outside the family system who are not part of the "awareness network" (Karpel, 1980).

This sense of isolation is a hallmark characteristic of some subsets of sexually abusing adolescents (Davis & Leitenberg, 1987; Worling, 2000). Miner and Crimmens (1995) conclude that the research data "point to the primacy of isolation and poor social adjustment as distinguishing characteristics of adolescent sex offenders" (p. 9). Feeling disconnected and outside the mainstream of society may function to loosen inhibitions against socially unacceptable behavior such as committing sexual offenses. Decreased identification with social norms may also be associated with diminished empathy with others, also contributing to sexual offending behavior.

Family secrets are also believed to foster distorted reality (Selvini, 1997). Family secrets tend to nurture misperceptions because critical information is withheld. Children in such families learn that, in order to reduce tension within the family system, any information, feelings, or ideas that are contrary with the official family presentation must be repressed or denied. Thus, the child's own sense of what he thinks and feels must be adjusted (i.e., distorted) in order to not disrupt the family system.

Such reality distortion is also common among sex offenders. In fact, offender denial is reported by clinicians as one of the most frequent responses to confrontation and disclosure of the offense (Salter, 1988).


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Davis, G.E., & Leitenberg, H. (1987). Adolescent sex offenders. Psychological Bulletin, 101, 417-427.

Eaker, B. (1986). Unlocking the family secret in family play therapy. Child and Adolescent Social Work, 3, 235-253.

Herz-Brown, F. (1991). The model. In F. Herz Brown (Ed.), Reweaving the family tapestry (pp. 3021). New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Imber-Black, E. (1993). Secrets in families and family therapy: An overview. In Imber-Black (Ed.), Secrets in families and family therapy (pp. 4-28). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Imber-Black, E. (1998). The secret life of families. New York: Bantam Books.

Johnson, T.C. (1988). Child perpetrators-children who molest other children: Preliminary findings. Child Abuse and Neglect, 12, 219-229.

Karpel, M. (1980). Family secrets: Conceptual and ethical issues in the relational context. Ethical and practical considerations in theapeutic management. Family Process, 19, 295-306.

Miner, M.H., & Crimmens, C.L.S., (1995). Adolescent sex offenders: Issues of etiology and risk factors. In B.K. Schwartz & H.R. Cellini (Eds.), The sex offenders: Vol. 1. Corrections, treatment, and legal practice (pp. 9.1-9.15). NJ: Civic Research Institute.

Pincus, L. & Dare, C. (1978). Secrets in the family. New York: Pantheon Books.

Ryan, G. (1997). The families of sexually abusive youth. In G. Ryan & S. Lane (Eds.), Juvenile sexual offenders (pp. 136-156). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Salter, A. (1988). Treating child sex offenders and victims. London: Sage Press.

Selvini, M. (1997). Family secrets: The case of the patient kept in the dark. Contemporary Family Therapy, 19, 315-335.

Van Manen, M. (1996). Childhood's secrets. NY: Teachers College Press.

Worling, J. (2000). Putting practice into research: Personality-based typology of adolescent male sexual offenders with implications for etiology, risk prediction, and treatment. Paper presented at the 19th annual research and treatment conference, Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, San Diego, CA.

Baker, A. J. L. (2003) Family secrecy: a comparative study of juvenile sex offenders and youth with conduct disorders – Family and Couple Research. Family Process, Spring, 2003

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