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Tattletale Parents

Should you speak up when you see a teen doing something they shouldn't? Here's what to do.


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Have you ever seen one of your kids’ friends doing something they shouldn’t? Something you know their parents would be really upset to learn? Before you play informant (or decide it’s none of your business), consider this when-to-say-something primer.

Speak up when it’s serious

If the behavior you’ve witnessed is destructive or has potentially life-threatening consequences, like substance abuse, self-harm, relationship violence or gang activity, you should always speak up, says Rebecca L. Hashim, PhD, psychologist at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center and assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Parents often talk themselves out of reporting these things because they think it’s not their problem or they convince themselves they’re imagining it and don’t investigate further, says Hashim. “If what you’ve seen or 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.” You would want to know if it were your kid, right?

But make sure it’s really happening

It’s important to emphatically separate hearsay from fact when choosing whether or not to inform another parent about his teenager’s destructive or dangerous behavior. Witnessing a behavior is a lot different than hearing about it from a third party, and even if you believe the source is reliable, you should have solid evidence before approaching the other parent.    

Think twice before bringing up anything related to sex

Some situations are not so clear-cut, and this includes issues involving sexual behaviors. “I would advise parents to seriously think twice before ever discussing…[another] teen’s sexuality with his parent,” says Gilberto Velez-Domenech, MD, chief of adolescent medicine at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center. “The source of information about a teen’s sexuality is almost always second-hand and intrinsically unreliable.” Plus, perceptions and opinions about teen sexuality vary widely, says Velez-Domenech, and “the potential for misperception and misunderstanding is very high.”

Approach the other parent delicately, but directly

Once you’ve made the decision to report what you’ve witnessed, speak to the teen’s parent in person and in private, and express your concern directly. “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/her person or values,” says Velez-Domenech. And do not be apologetic. “Protecting their own children is every parent’s right and duty. Protecting other parents’ children is a very noble act,” he says.

Be aware of possible repercussions (but don't let them dissuade you)

Reporting distressing information to another parent may result in some blowback, such as the loss of a friendship, strained relationships between families, the teen’s parent not believing what you’ve reported or your own kid being upset with you for intervening, says Hashim. However, if the behavior is potentially serious, it’s always, always better to be safe than sorry.

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