Among the trickier situations you may come across are those that involve your friends’ kids. You come across your friend’s 12-year-old son smoking cigarettes in a neighbourhood park. Or perhaps you stumble across a compromising picture of another’s daughter online. Maybe you hear about disturbing bullying behaviour going on at school. Or, most complicated of all, your own child comes to you concerned about a friend engaging in high-risk activities, from drinking or illegal drug use to cutting.
What do you do? Reporting on what you’ve heard or seen can feel awkward at best, potentially risky at worst. We all like to think we’d want to know if our kids were doing something illegal or dangerous, but the truth can be way more complicated. Some parents can get very defensive. They may be embarrassed or aggressive. It’s quite common for parents to deny that their baby would ever do something like that, because the implication is that they have somehow failed in their parenting role.
In the very worst cases, calling up another child’s parent to report on what you’ve heard or seen can turn friends/acquaintances into enemies. A highly defensive parent may accuse you or your child of having a hidden agenda, accusing you of being self-righteous, never having liked their child, or starting untrue rumours for social gain. And if your child came to you with disturbing news in confidence, you risk alienating your own kid and causing social issues for them, in an effort to help a child at risk.
There’s no easy answer in this kind of scenario, but the following guidelines can help you make sense of a difficult situation and determine the best thing to do.
Understand the difference between meddling and worthwhile intervention. This is similar to the distinction we give kids between tattling and telling when they have witnessed bullying going on. Tattling behaviour (or meddling) is all about getting someone into trouble (“She puts on lipstick as soon as her parents aren’t around”); telling (or worthwhile intervention) is about getting someone out of trouble (She’s cutting her arms with a razor blade”). Only those indiscretions which truly involve potential danger need be reported. (Click to tweet this.)
Question your own motivation for getting involved. Is there some element of competition? Some unresolved issue between you and the child’s parents, or between your kids? If you truly feel this child is at risk because of what you know, then you are on more solid ground. Assure the child’s parents that you have no intention of gossiping or judging them, and that in a similar situation you would want someone to tell you your child was in trouble.
Consider how close you are with the child’s parents. There are some smaller indiscretions you may choose to tell a very close friend, because you know their values, worries and concerns for their kids, but which would be inappropriate to tell an acquaintance or a parent you’ve never met.
Never promise your child complete confidence when someone can potentially be hurt. It’s tempting to tell our children that we will always keep their secrets, but this is dangerous ground. If you believe they know of a potentially dangerous situation (for themselves or others), you and they have a moral obligation to do something about it. They need to know this from the beginning, even if it means they may occasionally be more reluctant to speak to you. The critical factor is how you react: Don’t go behind their backs. Involve them in problem-solving. Determine the most effective and respectful form of intervention. Try and explain the long-term consequences of helping their friend.
Consider whether this issue places an undue burden of responsibility on your own child. A friend who confides to your child about such problems as depression, drug use, or thoughts of suicide is inadvertently overwhelming them with responsibility. These serious problems are too much for a teenager to deal with alone, and if something really terrible happens as a result, they will feel accountable. Kids don’t have the experience, judgement and knowledge to help out someone in real trouble, so know when to go to an adult for help is really important. If your child has come to you with this, it’s likely because they are feeling overwhelmed. They need your help to figure this out. Note that it’s always worth gently questioning your child about their own involvement, since it’s not uncommon to bring forward a problem to test your reaction by saying it’s “for a friend.”