Risky Teen Behavior: Speak Up
By Sandra Gordon
Cole Parker’s 13-year-old daughter, Asya, had just gotten off the phone with her best friend when she burst into tears. Her friend was in trouble. But when Parker asked his daughter what was wrong, “she didn’t want to tell me,” he recalls.
Parker, a father of five and president of Divas in Defense, an Atlanta company that offers self-defense classes for women, didn’t give up. Instead, he asked questions: Has your friend hurt herself? Is she depressed?
Eventually, Asya revealed that her friend was contemplating suicide because she was being bullied at school.
Parker quickly called the girl’s parents, who soon found their daughter a therapist. “Then everything got better,” Parker says. Still, “Asya felt like she was abandoning her friend by telling me,” Parker says.
Risky Teen Behavior: How to Encourage Teens to Tell
Teens don’t want to blow the whistle on their friends, says Vicki Panaccione, child psychologist and author of What Kids Would Tell You … If Only You’d Ask! They understandably dread being disloyal, or worry that their peers may ostracize them if they “tell,” including about risky teen behavior.
But it’s important that they confide in a trusted adult when they learn potentially dangerous information from a peer, from suicidal thoughts to plans for school violence, or if they observe things like self-harm (cutting) or an alarming use of drugs or alcohol.
In potentially life-threatening situations, “the only responsibility teens have is to tell a grown-up,” Panaccione says. It’s the adult’s responsibility to let the proper person know, such as the at-risk teen’s parents or the school.
“The guidance counselor can say ‘somebody told me’ to protect your teen’s privacy,” Panaccione says.
1. Build trust
To help your teen feel comfortable coming to you, don’t count on empty phrases such as, “You know our door is always open.” Instead, take the time to find out what’s going on in your teen’s life, in a general way.
“You might say, for example, ‘I read about teens cutting themselves. Does that go on in your school?’” says Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist in Millis, Massachusetts.
Or, give your teen a moral dilemma about risky teen behavior. For example, you could say: “What would you do if you thought a friend was truly contemplating suicide?” Teens know the difference between, “I got an F on the test. OMG! I’m going to kill myself” and “I’m going to kill myself next Wednesday at 2:00 p.m.”
By engaging teens in conversation and listening to their opinions when there’s no crisis, you’re more likely to build the trust necessary to become the confidante when a crisis occurs.
2. Be honest about what you will do with the information
But make sure you’re open with your teens about your plan of action. “If your teen tells you something about a friend and you promise not to tell, then you can’t tell anybody,” Panaccione says. “If you hear that a kid is having sex or smoking a joint, keep it private.”
If the situation is life threatening, explain why you must do something. “You could say, for example, ‘I know you’re worried about your friend finding out that you’re the one who told, but how would you feel if she overdosed and died?’”
Panaccione tells her teen clients, “I’d rather have somebody who is alive and pissed off at you than dead because you didn’t do anything to help.”
Next, explain exactly what you’re going to do with the information, such as call the school.
And try not to make judgmental comments about the friend, such as, “She’s always been a mess!” No matter what’s going on, “Teens don’t want you not to like their friends because of something they told you about them,” Panaccione says.
Sandra Gordon is a freelance writer in the New York City area. Read more of her work at sandrajgordon.com.