I'm concerned about my 14-year-old daughter's friend

Should I tell the parents what their daughter told my daughter?

Published September 19, 2005 7:19PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am at a new stage in my parental experience. I enjoy a very close relationship with my 14-year-old daughter (my oldest), who is a solid kid. She tells me so much of what goes on with her friends and peers, always with the understanding that I will keep all information confidential. In the last year some of her friends have confided in her about some of their troubling behaviors such as anorexia, cutting, casual sexual behavior, etc. I do think most of the talk is a bid for attention and I haven't been seriously concerned until recently. Most of the talk has been generated by one individual who has a long history of immature and hostile behavior. Indeed, she seems to be stuck in the habit of doing anything for negative attention.

Apparently this girl has been engaging in risky sexual activity at school (she is the only sexually experienced friend in the group), pretending to be on drugs at school, implying she has anorexia, and even expressing suicidal thoughts. It is still highly likely that she is just trying to get attention and sympathy from her friends, but I am growing uneasy with this information. There is another friend of my daughter's who has confessed to cutting herself.

A couple of times when my children were younger I had to tell two mothers about some inappropriate behavior that occurred when our kids played together. It was quite awkward at the time but it seems like nothing in contrast to the issues at hand. I am also concerned about my daughter being alienated from her friends, which would certainly occur if any of them found out that I had been the parent sharing this information.

My question is, at what point does a parent notify other parents about their concerns? I believe I will be privy to this sort of information throughout my daughter's high school years, and I know much of this information is going to become much more troubling. I would greatly appreciate guidelines, because this is an area that etiquette books just don't cover. Many thanks!

P.S. Apparently another parent within this group of friends anonymously e-mailed the school counselor with concerns about the troubled girl I mentioned earlier. The parents were notified and therapy is being sought.

Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

I would think the decision about what information to share with other parents would depend not only on the information but also on your relationship with the parents. Close friends would naturally share observations about each other's children, noting changes in mood and attitude, and perhaps inquiring if they are having any particular problems. Virtual strangers, on the other hand, would follow stricter guidelines for the sharing of information -- perhaps only when there was some imminent danger to the child and you were the only person who knew about it. With a parent you barely knew, you would not speculate about her child's mental health, sexual activity or drug use, would you? You would only say something if the child faced some imminent danger of which the parents were unaware.

Granted, if a child is pretending to be on drugs and implying that she has anorexia, those are warning signs. She may be testing out possible scenarios verbally, or she may be trying to indicate that she has an actual life-threatening problem. In this case it sounds as if certain problems have come to light and the parents and school counselors are trying to address them.

In general, if it were possible for you to become better acquainted with this girl's parents, it might help you understand what is going on. It would also give you an avenue for telling them things you think they ought to know. If kids and parents could get together in some informal way, you could get a better gut-level feeling for the relationship between the daughter and her parents. It would also give you better context in which to understand what your daughter is telling you.

If it is possible to have this child in your house more frequently, that might also be helpful. A child who is troubled can sometimes be helped simply by being in an atmosphere of serenity and good cheer. If her own home life is chaotic and frightening, or cold and uninviting, you may be able to offer her a transfusion of sorts, a booster shot of warm humanity. It may help her to see a way of life she might aspire to -- a happy family.

As to your relationship with your daughter, I would try to sustain the openness you have with her. Try to model the kind of adult behavior in which we confront each other directly with what's on our minds rather than keeping secrets and providing anonymous tips.

Openness and honesty are good adult principles. That does not mean that children should be told everything, or that we do not sometimes have to break our promises to them. There may come an emergency in which you would have to use some of what your daughter has told you in confidence in order to save another child from harm. But ideally things will not come to that.

With your guidance and support, your daughter can help this person. Drawing adult strength from you, she can speak directly to this person as a strong peer. You could not do this yourself. Neither could this child's parents. But your daughter can. So I would urge your daughter to maintain close ties with this child and attempt to help her through her crisis. She can empathize but also set boundaries by her example.

It must be understood, however -- you must tell your daughter this -- that if certain danger signs emerge, adults must intervene. The effects of suicide cannot be reversed, so steps must be taken to prevent it. Make clear the gravity of the situation. Ask for her trust.

As she enters her teen years, it will become increasingly clear that no one on earth can control everything that teenagers will do. What you can control is the manner in which you respond to the unexpected.

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