Many parents have been privy to someone else’s teenager engaging in destructive or illicit behavior. Is it appropriate to report such behavior to that parent?
When I’ve discussed this issue with close friends, most have responded, “I would say something if the parent were a friend of mine, because I would want to know.”
These situations are always delicate, though, and parents are oftentimes unsure about playing the role of informant.
Parents need to separate hearsay from fact. Even if a parent believes the source is reliable, he should have solid evidence before approaching another parent with disturbing news about her child.
Is the behavior something that endangers the teen’s — or someone else’s — well-being, health, or safety? Substance abuse, self harming, relationship violence, and gang activities are behaviors that have potential life-threatening consequences and should be reported.
“If you become aware of a teen’s destructive behavior, it is important to communicate these concerns to that teen’s parent,” says Dr. Rebecca L. Hashim, an attending psychologist on the Behavioral Consultation Team at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.
She says that parents often talk themselves out of reporting such information, because they believe it’s not their problem or they convince themselves that maybe they’re just imagining it. However, if a parent truly believes a behavior will risk the teen’s well-being, it’s best to say something.
“If what you have seen or have been told is actually happening, and you don’t share that information, you run the risk that the destructive behavior continues or even escalates, which can lead to serious consequences,” she adds.
“When a parent personally believes that there is a credible and reasonable threat to the life, safety, or well-being of her teen as a result of another teen’s behavior, the first and most important consideration should be the safety of her teen,” explains Dr. Gilberto Velez-Domenech, chief of adolescent medicine at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital in Westchester Medical Center.
Some situations are not so clear-cut, such as issues involving sexual behaviors.
“I would advise parents to think twice before ever discussing their own teen’s or someone else’s teen’s sexuality with another parent. The source of the information about a teen’s sexuality is almost always second-hand and intrinsically unreliable,” Velez-Domenech says. He also states that perceptions and opinions about teen sexuality differ greatly among parents. “The potential for misunderstanding is very high.”
Dr. Velez-Domenech states, “One parent should approach the other directly, and with total privacy and discretion. The conversation should be straight to the point and non-judgmental, making reference only to the actions of the teen involved and not to his or her person or values.”
However, he also says that a parent should not be apologetic.
“Protecting their own children is every parent’s right and duty. Protecting other parents’ children is a very noble act,” he points out.
Reporting distressing information to another parent may result in a loss of a friendship, strained relations between families, or the other parent not believing that her teen would do such a thing.
Hashim warns, “You do run the risk of the other parent not believing you or becoming upset that you would ‘accuse’ her child.” She reminds parents to weigh the possible consequences and seriousness of the behavior. “If the behavior is potentially serious, it’s better in the long run to make the parent aware of it and let him or her handle it as he or she sees fit.”
“I would only tell my friends. Things are not the same as when we were growing up. So many parents today are driven by the ‘self-esteem’ method of parenting. They might not believe such horrible tales about little Johnny!”
Debbie Naccarato Bango, Ivoryton, CT
“When I was growing up, if an adult in the neighborhood saw any ‘bad behavior’ our parents knew about it before we got home. As kids, this made us think about whether or not the chance of our parents finding out was worth it. The information should be immediate and before the behavior gets out of hand.”
Judi Glazer Strong, Tillson, NY
Upcoming topic: What have you heard about hookahs, and do you feel it’s worse than smoking?
Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer, columnist, and author of “Lions And Tigers And Teens: Expert advice and support for the conscientious parent just like you” (Unlimited Publishing LLC, 2012), available at Amazon.com.