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“You mustn’t tell anyone … “: What can (and should) parents do with information teens divulge?

Last week I was approached by two parents who were faced with a similar dilemma – both of their children had told them something in confidence about one of their friends in relation to alcohol or other drug use. To protect the identities of all involved I’ve altered the names and some of the details of the stories but hopefully you’ll get the general idea …

Renee believes she has a good, strong relationship with her 14-year-old son, Angus. They talk a lot and she knows most of his friends, as well as many of their parents. Last weekend, he went to a small gathering and, as always, she picked him and a few other boys up. After she dropped off the last one she could see that Angus was not himself. When she asked him what was wrong, he hesitated for a while but finally divulged that one of his mates had been drinking alcohol at the party (a hip flask full of straight vodka) and became very unwell. Angus had had to look after him and it had freaked him out because he really didn’t know what to do. When Renee asked why he hadn’t taken him to the host parents or called her, he said that he was scared and worried about what the others would say. He also begged her not to say anything to anyone else … With a little more prodding, Renee discovered this wasn’t the first time this young man had done this. She knows his parents reasonably well and wanted to know if she should go against her son’s wishes and tell them what she knew …

Having only recently moved into the area, Natalie was concerned about her 15-year-old daughter, Marissa, fitting into a new school and finding a new peer group. All seemed to be going well, however, with Marissa seeming happy and starting to be invited to parties and gatherings. During the week her daughter approached her, obviously a little distressed and started the conversation off with “You mustn’t say anything to anyone about what I’m going to tell you – do you promise?” Alarm bells went off immediately but she reluctantly agreed. Marissa had just found out that a couple of her new friends were regularly taking ecstasy and she didn’t know what to do about it. She had discovered what was happening when one of them had got very sick the previous weekend and she was left to look after her. She really liked her new group of friends and was quick to point out that it was only a couple of them who were into ‘pills’ (both introduced to them by older boyfriends) but she didn’t know what to do. Natalie was horrified – these girls were only 15! She hadn’t really met any of Marissa’s friends and certainly not their families but didn’t they have the right to know what their daughters were up to?   

Before we address these cases, it’s important to ask why a teen would decide to tell their parent (or anyone else for that matter) about their concerns around a friend and any potentially dangerous behaviour (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’ll still have their secrets and keep certain things back …). Basically there are three reasons why a child may share this type of information:

  • they’re genuinely concerned about what’s 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 an effect, particularly from more conservative parents who may not have had 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 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

Both of the stories above, however, fit into the first category – both of the teens are obviously deeply worried about the behaviour of a friend or friends. They want guidance and advice. Any parent who has found themselves in this situation knows how terribly difficult this can be. 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 can be hard, 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.

That said, I gave quite different advice to both parents. Renee knew the parents of the boy who was drinking quite well – they attended the same social functions, watched their sons play sport together and the like. To my mind, she had no choice, the boy was 14 and drinking to excess and her son had been put into a compromising situation having to look after him when he was intoxicated. If she handled it correctly, there was a good chance that letting the other mother know about her son’s alcohol use would be received without any problem (in fact, she was likely to be thanked for the information). On the other hand, Natalie had no relationship with her daughter’s friends or their parents. Simply ‘cold-calling’ a mother and letting her know that her 15-year-old daughter was taking ecstasy was unlikely to work out well for anybody. Natalie also needed to consider her daughter’s position in her new peer group (although by the sound of it I think Marissa was having second thoughts about who she was hanging out with) and how going into this situation without carefully thinking it through could be devastating for her daughter and potentially have long-term consequences for their future relationship. That said, if she believed that Marissa’s friends were truly ‘at-risk’, she would need to intervene. If she didn’t and a tragedy occurred, she’d never forgive herself. Natalie had a really tough decision to make …

What I said to both mothers was that if they did decide to say something they needed to consider the following:

  • inform your child that you’re going to contact the parent and tell them explicitly what you’re going to say and what you’re not going to say. You certainly don’t have to go into the ‘nitty-gritty’ of details with a parent and in these days of cameras being everywhere – a photo tells a thousand stories. If you’ve got a photo that shows what’s been going on, you don’t even to say that your teen told you what had been happening, just tell them you found an image while you were snooping!
  • make it clear to your teen why you’ve made the decision – they have to know that you don’t do this lightly and that essentially it’s all about preventing a tragedy. The reason you’re telling the parent is exactly the same as why they decided to tell you – you’re worried about what may happen to their friend
  • choose the ‘right time’ and ‘right place’ to talk to the parent – if you know the other parent well this can be a lot easier, e.g., organize a time to go out for a coffee or take a walk. Ensure you don’t have the chat around other people and try to do it face-to-face if possible. When you don’t know them it becomes far more difficult but if you truly believe a child is ‘at-risk’, you have to bite the bullet and make contact. In my experience, parents that have had the greatest success in these situations have ensured they do this during the day on a weekend (they’re not at work and there’s a little less stress all around) and although face-to-face is likely to be more successful from an empathic perspective, a phone call is usually far less confronting for all concerned
  • ensure that there’s no judgement – I always ask parents, how would you feel if someone told you that your child was doing something dangerous that you were completely unaware of, possibly implying that your parenting was not ‘up-to-scratch’? Now, of course, that’s hopefully not what you’re trying to do, but it’s vital that the other parent doesn’t feel judged when you speak to them. The best way to approach the conversation is from the ‘I would want to know ..’ perspective. If it’s ever happened to you, start with your own story – letting them know that you’ve been in the same boat could be helpful

When I’m 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’re 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’re 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’re 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 childhas made the decision to tell you about a friend’s drinking or drug use and it’s based on genuine concern, it’s usually a cry for help. Natalie made one of the biggest mistakes that a parent can make when a teen starts a conversation with “You mustn’t tell anyone what I’m about to tell you – do you promise?” by blindly agreeing to the conditions. 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’s a risk of someone being hurt in some way, you cannot ignore it and any promises made around confidentiality will have to be broken. The best way to avoid that happening is to simply not make those kinds 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.”

There are, of course, secrets you keep between you and your child (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 happened. I can guarantee you would never forgive yourself as a result.

Published: November 2018

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