It can be startling, what parents of teens can overhear or otherwise learn about their own child’s friends — who's getting in with a misguided crowd, who's taken up a not-so-secret vaping habit, who seems depressed or even suicidal.
And sometimes, the instinct to reach out to the parent with news that their teen might be in trouble can be a strong one — especially when your child comes directly to you with the information.
But when is that helpful and important — and when is it crossing a line? The answers are nuanced, say experts, and depend on many factors.
"This is a tough question," Erlanger Turner, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist who focuses on adolescents, and the executive director of Therapy for Black Kids, tells Yahoo Life. "And I think you always have to find the balance, as a parent, between being an authority figure and giving [your kid] the tools to learn how to navigate this on their own."
A teen or tween opening up about a friend is basically asking, albeit indirectly, for assistance.
"If your child comes to you with information about another child, your child is clearly signaling you that it's too much for them to carry and that they need your help," Barbara Greenberg, Connecticut-based teen and adolescent psychologist, tells Yahoo Life. Then, when they do unload, she says, the way you react is crucial.
"When your child tells you, listen very carefully with as little emotion as possible, because you'll get more information if you don’t show signs of fear or aggravation or anxiety," she says. "If you start getting escalated, your child is going to shut down."
But how can one decide when a red flag really warrants reaching out to a parent, and when it's just teenage drama worth staying out of? Turner and Greenberg point to some basic factors that are worth considering.
Assess the risk factor
"Is their child in an emotional or physical danger or crisis?" Greenberg says to ask yourself. If the answer is yes, it's time to get involved.
Turner agrees. "Are they being harmed? Try to decide is this child at risk of harming themselves or harming someone else — or being harmed by someone else," he suggests, noting that someone talking about suicide or self-harm, or being bullied or abused, all fall into this category.
Regarding other things you may hear about, such as that a kid has shoplifted or cheated or broken a rule, he says, "Yes, it's bad, but those are the teen behaviors that they grow out of, and you need to ask: How big a deal do you want to make out of that versus letting parent deal with it themselves?"
But if your child seems very concerned, Greenberg says, "anything is important that has to do with the other child's emotional well-being and safety — so not just suicidality, but just heavy-duty emotional material, because we want to get at things early." That's why listening to your gut, and your child's distress level, is critical. "Hear your child out, and think about it."
Consider the trust between you and your child
If your kid comes to you with information that's distressing enough for you to contact the other parent, don't take that step without talking to your child first, advise both Greenberg and Turner.
"If you decide that it would be helpful for the parent to know, before you tell the parent, tell the child that you’re going to do it," Greenberg says. "If you don't, you'll lose the trust, and if you lost the trust, it will take years to repair that."
It's also crucial to maintain that line of communication between yourself and your teen, adds Turner, which is why "you might tell your child if you're going to tell the parent… as opposed to not letting them know, then you tell the parent, the friend will be upset with them, and they will be upset with you."
Handle with care
Once you've made the decision to contact another parent, the way you approach them — gently, and with an open mind — should be carefully considered, Greenberg says, and should not be used "as social currency to start sharing with other parents." In other words, don't gossip about the kid you're trying to help.
And then, before picking up the phone, "check yourself on your intention," she adds. "Is your intention to help that family? Is your intention to show that you’re in the know? Just check in with yourself."
Then be gentle with your delivery, "the way you would want it to be delivered to you: 'I have this concern, I have a little bit of information about your child, would you like me to share it with you?' Ask for permission, people appreciate that," says Greenberg. "Then deliver it in an emotionally neutral manner, which helps people receive it better … And let the parent talk, because they might not only want to use you as a sounding board but might want to share with you some concerns about your child or the friend group, and it might be a valuable time to form a connection."
It's important to acknowledge that you're not trying to tell the mom or dad how to parent, says Turner, but instead stress that "'this information that has been given to me, and you can do what you want with it.'" If you do have a relationship with the parent already, he adds, "maybe say, 'I know we have this relationship, and I have this information. I don't know if it’s true or not … but I wanted to share with you because I value the friendship that we have.'"
Bottom line, Greenberg adds, "Be open to what might come from that conversation. The parent might initially get upset, and it doesn't mean they are upset with you, but talking about someone else's child is very, very delicate … People can get defensive, but mostly they will appreciate it."
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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