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How do you deal with information told to you in confidence by your teen? Would you be breaking their trust if you shared it?

Any parent who has found themselves in this situation knows how terribly awkward it can be … your son or daughter has told you something in confidence about one of their friends and their potentially dangerous behaviour and you are now left with this information, not completely sure what to do next. There are usually two questions that go through your head – firstly, would I want to be told if it was my child and secondly, would I be breaking the trust of my own child by sharing information that was told to me in confidence?

Although this is an extremely difficult situation for any parent to find themselves in, realistically the answers to the two questions are simple – yes, you would certainly want to know and even though you may be breaking your child’s trust, they’re telling you for a reason and in most cases you have no choice but to respond in some way, usually by telling someone else about your concerns.

The most important thing to consider here is why your teen decided to tell you about their friend (and please don’t say – “my child shares everything with me” – I guarantee they don’t! You may have the most wonderful, positive and connected relationship imaginable but they will still have their secrets and keep certain things back …). When it really comes down to it, there are three reasons why a child may share information about a friend’s dangerous behaviour:

  • they are genuinely concerned about what is happening and are looking to their parent for guidance and advice on what to do next
  • teenagers love drama and sharing stories about a friend’s outrageous behaviour is guaranteed to get a great effect, particularly from more conservative parents who did not have those type of experiences during their teens. Stories about friends being hospitalized due to a night of drinking or tales of drug use, often exaggerated, confirm all the media stories doing the rounds and are a great way of teens getting their parents’ attention
  • they want to cause trouble (often due to a breakdown of a friendship) and telling tales of drunken behaviour or other drug use may help ensure that their parent will now feel the same way as they do towards the person

Hardly a week goes past for me without a young person sharing their concerns about a friend’s alcohol or other drug use. Without a doubt most approach me because they are genuinely worried about their friend and my presentation has simply confirmed what they have been thinking for a while. Unfortunately, most of these students often want simple answers to very complex problems and there is little I can do apart from urge them to talk to someone (e.g., school counsellor, parent or telephone helpline), try to reassure them that in most cases young people do get to the other side and make sure that they are okay. Often these young people are so wound up and so scared for their friends (and have been for a while), that they need more help than the person they are worried about!

I certainly get the ‘drama queens’ as well – those young people who just want to try to shock me with outrageous stories. As I said, young people love drama and I can usually pick these teens out pretty quickly and am able to sort them out as soon as I start talking about my ‘duty of care’ – making it clear to them that I may have to share their stories with the school if I believe they, or their friends, could be at risk. Drama queens usually tone down their tales pretty quickly when this is raised.

When I am in a school I have a duty of care – a legal duty to take reasonable care to ensure that those that attend my presentations aren’t at risk of harm. If a young person indicates in some way, or tells me something that suggests they are at risk, I can’t ignore it – I must inform the school about my concerns. I make this clear at the beginning of every session I present in a school and if a child approaches me with stories about friends who they are worried about, I inform them that I cannot keep secrets – if someone is at risk, I will have to tell someone. In all my years of presenting in a school I have never had a child walk away at that point – if they are genuinely concerned, at that point, they just want to tell someone.

I believe it’s the same with a child and a parent – if your son or daughter has made the decision to tell you about a friend’s drinking or drug use and it is based on genuine concern, it is usually a cry for help. One of the biggest mistakes that parents make is when a teen starts a conversation with “You mustn’t tell anyone what I’m about to tell you – do you promise?” and they then agree! A parent should never agree to that – a child has to understand that there are some things that simply can never be kept secret. If there is a risk of someone being hurt in some way, you cannot ignore it and any promises made around confidentiality will have to be broken. Break a promise made to your teen and you will never be allowed to forget it. The best way to avoid that happening is to simply not make those kind of promises in the first place – in reality they’re impossible to keep and end up getting you into all sorts of trouble.

Telling your child that you can’t always keep secrets is also most probably the best way of filtering out drama and ‘paybacks’. Here are a few great responses to “You mustn’t tell anyone what I’m about to tell you – do you promise?” that you could possibly use:

  • “I can’t promise that, but I do promise whatever I do, I will only do after talking it through with you first.”
  • “If what you’re going to tell me could involve someone getting hurt in some way, I can’t promise that. I do promise that I won’t tell anyone what you’ve told me without telling you what I’m going to do first.”
  • “I can’t make a promise I may not be able to keep. If what you’re going to tell me is about a friend in trouble in some way, I may have to tell someone. Do you think someone else should know but are worried about your friendship? If so, we can talk about that.”

Of course there are secrets you keep with your son or daughter (that’s part of a warm and connected relationship) but information about potentially dangerous behaviour of their friends simply can’t be kept private. Imagine if you had been privy to information about a teen, never shared it and then something terrible had happened to that young person. I can guarantee you would never forgive yourself as a result …

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