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'90s Family

To Tell the Truth

To butt in or not to butt in? That&s the question when you know another parent's child may be engaged in risky business. The trick is to gauge the conequences if you remain silent.

February 18, 1996|BARBARA BRONSON GRAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are scores of situations that can prompt a parent to make what is perhaps the most daunting phone call of all: telling another parent that his or her child is doing something risky, illegal or morally wrong.

Counselors say an increasing number of parents are seeking advice about when to butt in when they've heard someone else's child is using drugs, contemplating suicide, having sex at a very young age, grappling with an eating disorder or joining a gang.

Is it better to keep such knowledge to yourself, or is there a sort of unspoken code of parental ethics that requires you to broach the subject?

And what if your own child begs you not to get involved?

Anne Hansen of Camarillo has five children--three in college, two, ages 9 and 14, at home. She has been through this dilemma many times. Once, her eighth-grade daughter came home from school sick and finally confessed that she was not ill, but worried. Her good friend had taken a bottle of Tylenol in an attempt at suicide.

Hansen wondered if she was obligated to call the girl's mother--and felt she was. "But you set yourself up for the other mother to be angry at you for being the messenger," she says. As it turned out, the friend's mother was appreciative.

Nancy Kirschberg, coordinator of emergency services at the Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center in Culver City, has had to make a similar call. One of her children told her that a friend was smoking marijuana. Kirschberg knew the parent well. She opted to tell.

"I did it on the basis of how well I knew the parent. Had I not been friendly with her, I don't know if I would have called," Kirschberg says. "The fear, of course, is that the parent will turn on you."

Kirschberg, and others, think the when-to-call question is part of a much broader social issue: how willing families should be to get involved in what is happening with their friends, acquaintances and in their communities.

Some parents and experts say the best way to deal with the issue is to ask a simple question: What's the risk if I don't get involved? In cases of depression, suicide and abuse, the answer is far more clear than with such issues as sex, drinking and drugs.

"Sometimes it really is none of your business," Hansen says. "And it's just as bad to be checking out everything as to be checking out nothing."

If the problem is physical or sexual abuse, anyone can report the situation anonymously by calling the Child Abuse Hotline, (800) 540-4000, says Kirschberg, adding that in cases of abuse, it is frequently better not to confront the child's parents.

In all cases, don't do anything until you make sure the situation is not hearsay, Kirschberg says. "Talk to your child. If it's just 'Nick tells me Tom smokes marijuana,' I would not intervene."

Securing your child's permission to get involved can be tough. Often, children--especially adolescents--are realistically afraid of the potential impact of "snitching." It may mean the loss of a friendship, teasing or worse.

If the child refuses to agree, there may be times when the parent must do it anyway, says Manya Jianniano, a psychologist at UC Riverside. "If you feel it's a dangerous situation, you need to say, 'I know you're going to be angry but I have to do this,' " she suggests. Most important, don't promise the child you won't tell the other parent and then do it. "Let them know ahead of time," she says.

She points out that this situation can be an opportunity for parents to talk through an ethical dilemma with children, showing them how to handle serious problems and teaching them how to be caring and good-hearted without being nosy or probing. Whatever the issue, the manner of raising it with the other parent can be critical.

The key is to come across as caring, direct and nonjudgmental.

Mary Thompson, a Huntington Beach mother of four girls from 7 to 16, says she would preface her call by saying, "If this were happening to me I'd want another parent to tell me. . . ."

Once the problem is conveyed, it's best to get off the phone and refrain from giving advice, says Barbara Cadow, a clinical psychologist at USC. Cadow also encourages parents to take their cue from the other parents' response: If they are rude, defensive, arrogant or angry, you may need to encourage your own child to pull away from the friendship.

These are some of the toughest issues of parenting, but they can be critical and promising turning points not just for other people's kids, but for your own, Cadow says.

"These problems are made tougher because they intensify our feelings of powerlessness as parents and make us face the fact that we can't watch over our children all the time."

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