What do you do when your child tells you about some risky behaviors that a friend of theirs is engaging in, and you know the friend’s parents?
This is a question that terrifies many parents of teenagers. When one parent has an, “I know something you don’t know” piece of information, it can become a wedge in an otherwise beautiful friendship between two parents. The holder of this potential landmine of information may think, “I would want a parent or friend to tell me if my teen was engaging in risky behaviors.”
If your teen is sharing this information with you, you should feel very encouraged by the strength of your relationship. It means that your teen finds you worthy of his or her trust and thinks you can help in difficult situations. Your first and most important allegiance should be to your teen and his or her safety. This is something worth protecting, because it means you may be able to impact not only the safety of your teen, but perhaps someone else’s teen as well.
Say your teen comes to you with a story about a friend who got pretty drunk at a party. Feeling worried for their friend, they share this story with you. They feel uncomfortable and lack the experience and strategy to deal with it in an effective way. They don’t need your judgment; they need your help. What happens is you go right into “the lecture:”
“You are not allowed to ever go to that house again! If I ever find out you have been drinking or taking drugs, you will be grounded. I don’t want you hanging out with those kids again.”
After a speech like this, you can be assured that your teen will NEVER come to you again for help. They may even start seeing his or her friends without your knowledge or permission. If you immediately call the parent of the kid(s) they told you about, you can also be assured that your teen will NEVER come to you again for help. Here’s what you can do instead.
First, commend your teen for coming to you in the first place. Say, “I really am glad you can tell me this stuff. I know you are worried about your friend; maybe we can figure out together what might be a good plan of action.”
Now comes the strategy session. Do not try to solve this for your teen—work on it as a collaboration. Come up with alternatives and scripts so they are prepared when this situation happens again—and it will, despite your warnings, punishments and threats.
Risky situations will always be present in the lives of teens. You can’t protect them from these situations, but you can give them the information and strategy that will help when they are in the thick of it. If they’re worried about a friend, then you can help them figure out how they might be able to help that friend before you get on the phone and call the parent.
I worked with a parent recently whose son’s close friend was cutting herself. This girl called the boy night after night as her anxiety reeled out of control, needing his voice to keep her calm and safe from hurting herself. The boy’s mom was beside herself with worry. Her son pleaded with her not to call the girl’s parents. He felt so responsible for keeping this girl safe, which of course was a losing battle. We worked on a plan so that the next time he was on the phone late with this girl, his mom would immediately call the girl’s parents and let them know their daughter was in crisis. This way, he could blame his parents’ involvement on catching him on a late night phone call, thereby protecting his friendship with this girl. Most importantly, the new process helped get the girl the much-needed help from her parents, who had been completely in the dark about this scary issue. This mom accomplished two goals: protecting the relationship she has with her son and recognizing the importance of getting this girl the help she needed to stay safe.
Your job is to keep your lines of communication open with your teen. If the situation is life threatening, or threatening to others, then this does require a call either directly to the parent or the school’s guidance counselor. If you are going to do this, tell your teen ahead of time so you can work on a plan on how to handle it together after the information is shared. The guidance counselor can call the parents and say, “Some concerned parents have shared information I think you ought to know about your teen’s safety.” Using the school as your go-between allows you to keep your teen out of the loop and protect your trust with him or her, while still looking out for the safety of the other child. If you see risky behavior with someone else’s kids first-hand, you can feel comfortable sharing the information with their parent(s). For example, you can say, “I just picked your teen up from the party, and they’re high. I wanted to get him home so you can make sure they’re OK.”
If you are friendly with your teen’s friend’s parent, then you might also use a more indirect approach when having coffee with your friend. “So what do you think our kids are into?” Or, “I have been hearing that there is a lot of drinking and pot smoking going on where our kids are hanging out. Let’s come up with the same strategy with our kids, so we’re both on the same page.” Now you can open up a conversation about your worries without divulging any particulars your teen has shared with you. Your goal for this conversation is to gently nudge this parent into becoming aware of possibilities. Your relationship with your teen is THE MOST IMPORTANT goal. Helping your child stay safe may help their friends to be safe as well.
About Joani Geltman, MSW
Joani Geltman, MSW is a leading parenting expert, with four decades of experience in working with youth, including as a psychology professor, school counselor and social worker, a family therapist, and a parenting coach. She has recently published the book “A Survival Guide to Parenting Teens: Talking to Your Kids About Sexting, Drinking, Drugs, and Other Things That Freak You Out”. She holds a Masters degree in social work from Washington University and has been quoted or published by USA Today, Psychology Today, Boston Globe and The Washington Post. Find out more by visiting joanigeltman.com