Promise You Won’t Tell?

What parents don’t know…. can hurt you.

Confidentiality is tricky for youth workers.

We want students to confide in us but often parents need to be involved if the student is going to be helped. What are the situations where parents must be told and how do we discern when they don’t need to know.

When Parents Must Know

To begin, we should never get suckered into secrecy when a student says “Promise you won’t tell?” I fell for that too often when I first started youth ministry and students felt betrayed when I realized that I couldn’t keep that promise.

It’s better to say that I can’t promise about everything but I can promise you that will work with you to keep this as confidential as possible. If anyone else needs to know we are going to do that together.

Legally, there are at least 6 issues that you cannot keep secret

  1. When students are set on harming themselves
  2. When students are set on harming others
  3. When students are involved in illegal activities
  4. When students are in the process of running away from home
  5. When a student is pregnant
  6. When a student is being threatened or bullied

Gray Areas ?

There are a number of gray areas where parents need to know eventually but maybe not immediately. These are complicated because parents could be the problem or they could make the situation worse. Here are a few examples:

  • Student is facing depression because of school, sports, or other unrealistic expectations
  • Student is crushed because parents are verbally abusive or neglectful
  • Parents are critical of the student’s friends
  • Parents are extremely restrictive or overly permissive
  • Students is sharing about parents arguing

Some other gray areas involve a student hiding something from their parents like:

  • They are secretly dating and their parents do not want them to date (if they are sexually involved I want their parents to know right away)
  • They are doing poorly in school and parents don’t know
  • They are having conflict with a teacher or students and they are afraid parents will
  • They have experimented with alcohol or cigarettes ( If a student is fooling around with drugs that one is not gray for me. I tell the parents.)
  • The student confesses they have been viewing pornography
  • The student confesses they have cheated on homework or a test.
  • The student has poor self esteem or a negative body image
  • The students confesses that they no longer believe in God

In all of these gray areas I want the student to have a conversation with their parents eventually. Students will often say that they don’t want their parents to “freak out” or they don’t want their parents to worry. From the students perspective they normally doubt their parents’ ability to help or to make things better.

In their mind they believe their parents will criticize, be disappointed, or punish them. They may be right but that doesn’t automatically mean that we should keep the truth from the parents. As youth workers we aren’t like their high school friends. As adults we take the courageous role or directing students toward health and healing.

–In one case for me that meant driving 3 students home after picking them up a police station, going into their home while the siblings confessed to their parents they had stolen expensive shirts from a store in China Town.

–In another case it meant giving 15 year old girl 24 hours to confess to her parents that she was dating an older boy before I called to speak with the parents myself.

Sorting through confidentiality Issues

There are black and white areas, gray areas, and areas where we can keep things confidential. Students won’t be happy that you can’t keep the same code of silence as their high school friends but we need to be clear with them that we have a higher calling.

Our calling includes the courageous role of hearing secrets and then working with families or professional counselors to see a student move toward honesty, healing and health. Keeping secrets from parents can create a damaging emotional distance between the student and their parents. We can feel special holding these secrets being the only one that the student will talk to but this is not helpful for all situations.

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Ron Powell

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Ron Powell is the Adviser to the Director of the Youth Ministry Institute at Vanguard College. He has been involved in youth ministry for over 30 years. He continues to volunteer, write, teach, and speak to parents, leaders and teens. If you would like to contact him you can email ron.powell@vanguardcollege.com