It’s a grey area, isn’t it, the line between keeping your mouth shut because students have confided in you, and informing their parents because they have a right to know. A student tells you he’s started smoking. Do you tell his parents? You know two students are having sex. Do you inform their parents? When is it okay to break the ‘secret trust’ that exists between students and youth leader?
When we want students to trust us, and share things with us, confidentiality is a big thing. They won’t tell us anything if they fear we’ll run to their parents first thing and start blabbing. That means that the basic rule is that we don’t tell parents what their kids tell us. But we all know that are situations in which we may have to inform parents. So the question is: when is it okay to talk about hat students have told us?
When breaking confidentially is okay
Let’s start with two cases in which it is okay to talk, when it’s necessary even:
When a student is abused or molested
Even when they tell you they don’t want anyone to know, this is one case where you’ll have to ignore their request. You have to inform the right people. When it’s abuse or sexual advances by others than the parents, inform the parents. Otherwise, contact the proper authorities, for instance Child Protected Services. You may even be legally required to do so, these laws differ per country and even per state. Be sure to check your legal position as youth leader in your own country and state!
When a student is a danger to himself or others
If you know a student is severely depressed to the point of being suicidal, you have to inform his or her parents. Obviously, the same goes for students who show any signs of endangering others. Never ignore these signals, that is something you may come to regret deeply later on.
But even in these cases, always take into account the relationship the student has with his or her parents. If they are the cause of the problems (as may be the case with abuse), informing them may just make things worse. Be sure to check this if possible. Ask a senior pastor or youth pastor for advice when in doubt what to do.
When breaking confidentiality may (not) be okay
Now onto the grey areas. What do you do when students engage in behavior that parents would want to know about? Say drinking, doing drugs, becoming sexually active, those kinds of things. Is it okay to talk then?
I think there are a couple of factors to be taken into account. The first is the severity of what they’re doing. To me, there’s a big difference between smoking and doing (hard) drugs. The first is harmful, but can be remedied. The second is potentially deadly. It’s the same with sexual behavior. Having sex with their partner, however morally wrong, is not dangerous (though it may be illegal, inform yourself of the law in these areas!). Having sex with multiple partners is a whole different story. The more harmful (or illegal) the behavior is, the stronger the case for informing parents.
Secondly, I have always looked at the age of the student involved. In The Netherlands, people are legally of age at 18. It was never a hard or fast rule, but I’ve often made the decision that if students were over 18 and no longer living at home, I didn’t inform their parents. They are after all legally of age and more or less independent. If they were under 18 and/or still living at home, I usually did, because they were still under the responsibility of their parents.
If and when you decide to inform the parents, always tell the student and give them the opportunity to do it fist. Explain why you want to tell their parents so they understand it’s out of love and concern for them. Give them a time period to bring it up with their parents themselves, a week for example. Then follow up with both the student and their parents. And don’t forget to offer both help! The student may need counseling or other help and so may the parents.
When I did some online research for this post, I came across a ‘Counseling policy’ that a church had laid out. It informed the parents of the confidentiality between youth leaders and students and stated the only cases in which this confidentiality was broken (abuse, suicidal, pregnancy, drugs and alcohol). Parents are asked to sign this document when their child becomes involved in student ministry, so they know what they can expect.
I have never worked with a document like this, but it sounds like a great way to make the ‘rules’ clear up front, so there are no surprises. Do any of you have a policy like that? I’d love to hear if it’s functioning well!
What are your ‘rules’ for breaking confidentiality? How did teens/students and parents react? Share your experiences in the comments!