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Sandy Banks

Some Secrets Parents Need to Know

October 01, 2000|Sandy Banks

It seemed an easy enough deal to make as her daughter edged into adolescence: You keep sharing your life with me, and I promise to keep your secrets.

She didn't want to lose the camaraderie she had always shared with her only child. "So I told her that whatever she told me would be kept in confidence, unless it had to do with causing harm to self or others . . . suicide, murder, etc."

Over the years, they came to share an uncommon closeness; a mother drawn into her 16-year-old's circle of teenage friends. "We talk about everything," she wrote me, "from who got what pierced and where, who is going with whom (gay, bi or straight), even who lost what and how. Even her friends confide in me."

Now, she has been hit with a confession so frightening, she is forced to reconsider the vow of loyalty she'd made.

"The issue is that one of her friends has started to experiment with heroin. I have known the parents for more than a decade," she said. "The question is, do I break the confidentiality of my child? Is [the risk in] using drugs equal to that of a child contemplating suicide?"

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The questions may be heart-wrenching, but the answers are painfully plain. Yes, and yes.

At least that's according to therapists, who confront scenarios like this every day.

"As important as the relationship between mother and daughter, this is one time when the potential for catastrophic consequences is so great, you cannot keep this secret," says Veronica Thomas, a Woodland Hills therapist who specializes in family and adolescent counseling.

Thomas said the mother's deal was a good one. "It's the same thing I tell my patients. Everything is confidential except the following: If somebody is hurting you, if you are hurting yourself, if you are hurting someone else."

Heroin use clearly falls into the "hurting yourself" category, the half-dozen therapists I interviewed said.

"This a dangerous situation, because heroin is a highly addictive drug. This is not one where the mother can just stand by," said Judith Cotton, an Encino therapist who conducts parenting workshops throughout Southern California, dubbed RAPP--Real Answers to Positive Parenting.

That doesn't mean Mom ought to run straight from the daughter's room to the nearest phone to call the friend's parents and spill her guts. "She needs to try to preserve her relationship with her daughter, to talk to her first and try to get her approval to go forward," Cotton said. "Maybe they can make a plan . . . the daughter can tell her friend, 'Look, I told my mother, and she's very concerned. Can we all three go together and talk to your parents?' "

But the mother also has to make clear to her daughter that she plans to talk to the friend's parents, with or without her approval, "because somebody's life is in danger."

And she will have to accept the possibility that her relationship with her daughter may suffer. "The daughter may feel betrayed, angry, disappointed," Thomas said. "But as a parent, sometimes you just have to tolerate that anger, that rage, and hold tight to your good judgment. . . . And hope that over time your child will realize the wisdom of what you did."

Thomas speaks as a mother, as well as a therapist. She once faced a similar situation with her own teenage daughter, and she remembers the speech she gave:

"I said to my daughter, 'Look, I know I swore confidence to you, but this is such an extraordinary situation, I cannot keep it a secret. I know you don't agree with me, but you have to trust my judgment as an older, more experienced person.

"I realize you may hate me for this, you may not understand . . . but I hope someday you will. And I hope if you are ever in this situation, that somebody's parent would tell me."

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That's what we all hope, that this village of parents and teachers and coaches and friends will serve as eyes and ears when we're not around, will keep us involved in our kids' lives, even if those kids try to shut us out.

But when it falls to you to be those eyes and ears, it is not always easy to decide when to keep silent, when to speak up, what to say.

Do you tell one of your dearest friends that her daughter shoplifted earrings from the local mall? Should you talk to the mother of a seventh-grade girl who is bragging to your daughter about her sexual exploits with boys? What do you say to his parents when your son tells you his best friend is smoking pot and ditching school?

"I think you have to pick your issues, to draw the line, very carefully," Thomas said. "There has to be room for some experimentation; risk-taking is part of adolescence."

Her daughter tried marijuana in high school but didn't admit it until later. "Sure, I was disappointed," Thomas said. "But she told me, 'What did you think, I was going to go through adolescence and not try things?'

"Here we had this very open relationship, and yet there were all kinds of things going on that I didn't know about."

None of us wants to be the ignorant one: the parent out of the loop, with no idea what their children have done. But all of us have to accept the possibility that someday there may be a parent and child sitting on a bed talking about something stupid that your child has done.

"It's great when your children trust you, when they feel they can talk to you about what's going on in their lives," Thomas said. "But when kids reach adolescence, no matter how close they are with their parents, there are some things they will never tell you.

"And if you just patently believe and trust that your child is so open with you, that you know everything about their lives, then you are a fool. And you may be in for a rude awakening."

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Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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