Let’s untangle...

Through articles, podcasts, book excerpts, and downloadable bookmarks, my goal is to share practical advice and research-backed guidance that addresses the big and small challenges that come with family life.

And if you’re in search of more timely resources, Untangling 10 to 20 is my new digital subscription offering a dynamic library of video content and articles for parents, caregivers, and teens.

Become a member

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

Lisa's latest New York Times best seller is an urgently needed guide to help parents understand their teenagers’ intense and often fraught emotional lives—and how to support them through this critical developmental stage.

Under Pressure

Under Pressure

Lisa’s second New York Times best seller is a celebrated, urgently needed guide to addressing the alarming increase in anxiety and stress in girls from elementary school through college.

Untangled

Untangled

Lisa’s award-winning New York Times best seller–now available in nineteen languages–is a sane, informed, and engaging guide for parents of teenage girls.

Join today

Untangling 10 to 20 is a dynamic library of premium content designed to support anyone who is raising, working with, or caring for tweens and teens.

Become a member

Already a member?

Log in

December 12, 2023

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 148

What Should I Do With Dicey Information About Other People’s Kids?

Episode 148

When a teen tells us about a peer’s risky behavior, what’s the right thing to do? Should we keep our teen’s confidence, or should we alert the parents of the kid we are worried about? Dr. Lisa and Reena tackle a letter from a parent who has built a strong sense of trust with her teens and often hears about dangerous behavior – including substance use and worrisome sexual activity – happening in their peer group. Dr. Lisa offers her practical parenting wisdom on when it makes sense to just listen, when it’s time to act, and how to move forward without breaking trust with one’s own teen or making the situation worse.

December 12, 2023 | 28 min

Transcript | What Should I Do With Dicey Information About Other People’s Kids?

TRANSCRIPT | WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH DICEY INFORMATION ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE’S KIDS?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. #148: What should I do with dicey information about other people’s kids?

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

——

Reena Ninan
You know one thing I love about the holiday season are traditions that even as the kids get older, they still love traditions like that crazy Elf on the Shelf. They still like the Elf on the Shelf, do they know the reality of Elf on the Shelf?

Lisa Damour
You know, it’s magic is things our tradition. So I knit for my is my hobby. And I knit advent calendars for my girls. So I didn’t know there’s a mitten. There’s a little tiny mitten or a little tiny hat. And it’s an A garland in our kitchen. And there’s one for each of them. And you know, I have a college kid who loves when she gets home digging into this thing. Now of course she gets home deep into December. Right. So she gets to open the first like 20 days and once. So it’s pretty fun.

Reena Ninan
Oh, so but she still loves it, even though she’s…

Lisa Damour
She still loves it. And I still love filling it. I mean, I will always love filling it.

Reena Ninan
I love that I absolutely love that. So it’s interesting as you’re talking about the different stages, out of college, this letter talks about getting information and you’re not sure what to do about it, which I imagine Lisa, like kids share and come home and whether it’s middle school or college. So I want to read this to you: Hi, Dr. Lisa. I’ve cultivated relationships with my sons ages 17 and 20. And they’re friends where I am a trusted resource for information and guidance about hard topics, sex, drinking, social media use, etc. Sometimes I learned about very risky behavior other kids, often girls ages 15 and 16 are engaging in. I always encourage my kids and their friends to be empathetic. And it’s always been my internal policy to never tell the school or the parents, because I don’t want to betray the kids trust. And I feel like they might actually be helping the situation more with their empathy than I would by involving adults. But sometimes I wonder if this is the right approach, currently a 15 year old girl whose mom I barely know, has started asking older guys to provide her with alcohol. And I overheard her confiding in one of my son’s friends that she recently had sex with two boys at once. So I’m very concerned about her. Thanks for any insights that you can help provide. Okay, where does this parent even begin?

Lisa Damour
Man, I in my mind went to like 14 different places in the course of listening to that letter. So the first place I went was, you know, man, oh, man, what a great adult who’s like, okay, my, you know, I’ve got the relationship with my sons where they’re telling me things, I trust them. I you know, encourage them to be empathic. I put a lot of faith in that value of doing that as opposed to waiting in and maybe making things worse by, you know, making a bunch of phone calls. I mean, so, so deeply thoughtful, so careful. And yet, she’s asking I think the critical point shouldn’t be like, where’s the line, right? And she gives us two examples like the girl asking older guys to buy her alcohol. And I don’t know if that same girl or a different girl, you know, saying that she’s having sex with two boys at once like that this is making this parent understandably uncomfortable, like this is a lot of information to have about somebody else’s kid.

Reena Ninan
So where does this parent even begin? Like, do you? You have a rule? When should a parent intervene and reach out to another pair? Because you surprised me about this early on, you said that it’s not your default to just go pick up the phone and call the parent? Why?

Lisa Damour
Well, what I would say the number one reason is, what matters is actually your relationship with your kids. And that what keeps teenagers safe is a good working relationship with an adult, this parent has a good working relationship with her kids, her kids safety is the priority because they’re her kids. And she I think, has rightly intuited that if they don’t trust her, they’re not going to tell herself, you know, she goes around around them and picks up the phone, she will harm that relationship, which in my mean, mind means they are suddenly less safe, because they don’t have that good working relationship. So there’s real value in it. But there are lots of exceptions. So the number one exception, of course, of course, of course, is if somebody safety like life or death situation, right? I mean, you don’t sleep on anything where a kid has, you know, said something that is either directly or vaguely suicidal, right? You don’t take that under advisement. And think about what you want to do. I mean, you eldest say exactly what I would want people to do. If you hear that a kid is suicidal, either they’ve posted something online, or they’ve said something very alarming to, you know, another peer, an adult in that kids family needs to know, right? I mean, like, it needs to be handled. And really, these are very messy situations. And they are very uncomfortable when they happen. Because often, you know, people like Yeah, but there’s a reason that kid didn’t tell their parents or whatever, you know. So I’ll tell you how I think about this clinically. And maybe this can be useful to families as they think it through. Reena, when I was in my training, to become a psychologist, I was at the University of Michigan, and once a year, the university lawyer would come to the clinics where we were working to talk with us about liability questions. And I always sort of had this daydream when he would come up like that the University of Michigan had some big giant map of like liability hotspots on the campus. And I was like, oh, and like the graduate students caring for the other graduate students was probably like a liability hotspot. And he said to us, think about what trial you want to be in? Do you want to be in the stand on a stand? Where you maintained your clients confidentiality, and they died by suicide? Or do you want to be on the stand in a trial where somebody is mad at you about the fact that you violated their confidentiality, and the client is alive? So it was a very useful part of my training, which is there are situations where it’s messy no matter what you do, right, not running the flag of the pole that it could have suicidal is, you know, very problematic. Running the flag of a poll that occurs, suicidal can also be very problematic. What problematic situation would you like to be in? And not looking for the answer where everything’s going to be okay, there’s no answer where it’s going to be easy. Take the one where you will feel comfortable with the downsides.

Reena Ninan
Wow, that really puts it in very stark sort of terms. Just to understand what you have at stake here. What were you talking about messy situations? What do you do if you’re really good friends with the parent, and you know, you being the messenger is not going to go down well, even if you’re trying to do the right thing.

Lisa Damour
Right. So this is interesting. So the letters specifies, like, helpfully, like, a 15 year old whose mother I barely know, right? So there’s also questions of like, degrees of distance. So obviously, you’re gonna say something if there’s a life or death concern, like that is, you know, that’s, that’s a given. But then, okay, so say that, for the sake of argument, the letter writer was like, I am really close with the parents of the 15 year old who was asking older kids to buy their booze, right like that. That changes the nature of it. Like if it’s very far away, you can do like, you know what, it’s not your kid. It’s not your it’s too far away to me make sense? I think that gets really tricky. Even still. When we feel we need to act, and sometimes we do. The best approach always is to try to go through the teenagers, so to say to the teenage sons, can you guys tell this 15 year old that you’re concerned about her? Can you see if you can make a difference and get her to knock it off? Can you also make sure that nobody will buy for her right? I mean, what other measures do you have that do not involve a phone call? To the adult, because it causes so many new fresh problems when we do that.

Reena Ninan
So what you’re saying is if you get dicey information, your first and you know that it’s not going to lead to death, you know, in the next 24 hours, the best situation when you’ve got spicy information about another kid is not to go to the parent, but to see if the kids can work it out and intervene before an adult has to intervene.

Lisa Damour
Yeah, and it can even take it up several notches through the kids, right? So say it’s something where like, a kid has a real drug problem, and the peers know it, and the parents on you know, just don’t, which can definitely happen. That needs to that, you know, the adults need to know that kid needs treatment. And so then you can say to a teenager, here’s what you should say to your friend, either you need to tell your folks that you have a drug problem and need treatment, or I’m going to tell your folks that you have a drug problem and a treatment, like, what do you want it to be. And again, these are not fun situations. And this is not going to be pleasant. But what I really, really value about teenagers is they are deeply loyal, and they want the right thing for their friend. And so it also can really help to prepare them like if you know, a kid pushes back and says like, don’t tell my parents about my drug abuse, or don’t tell my parents about my eating disorder or my out of control drinking. We want our kids to be equipped to say, look, I’m going to do it and you may be very angry with me. I would rather you be angry with me and you’ll be safe than you and I get along and you’ll be in danger. So get them ready for the pushback. The other thing you can say to your teenager is do you want me to make the call? Right? You can do it. Your teenager may say I need you to call that other kids parent, right? But do it if you can with your teenagers blessing or request. You know, because sometimes they’re like, I don’t want to be part of this and right. But there’s lots of options between doing nothing and picking up a phone call him a phone impulsively and calling another parent.

Reena Ninan
Wow, because my first response would be Oh, pick up the phone and deal but you you have gotten me to think differently about when it is time to intervene. You know, it’s interesting, Lisa, on the topic of do you intervene? I think what I’ve heard from you on the other side of the break was that let the kids can they can achieve more with their own empathy than with adult intervention.

Lisa Damour
It’s true, I mean, teenagers are kind of extraordinary and taking care of one another. And I really appreciate the way the letter writer credits them with this. I want to put an asterisk on that though, because one of the things that I have seen, and I think that you as you have your kids move deeper into adolescence, you will see is that sometimes teenagers are so empathic, they end up almost serving as like a junior Johnny Psychologist for their peers, where there’s a peer who maybe is having a hard time. And maybe it’s not at a level where there’s a safety concern or anything like that. But there’s long phone calls that go deep into the night, and you know, peers who may expect a very rapid text response when your kids supposed to be studying, but the peers very needy and has become very dependent. So they found a wonderfully empathic friend. And then they are asking, what I would say is probably more than his fair. So we want kids to be empathic. But I also want us to keep an eye out for when our kid who is trying to keep a pier afloat, themselves is starting to feel bogged down or drowning in that. And I think in those moments, it’s really helpful to say, you know, you are doing an incredible job of supporting your friend, what you’re doing isn’t working. Clearly, they need more support than you, as an untrained person, much like not even just teenager versus adult untrained person can provide, how can we help? How can I help you get your peer to the support that will actually help them feel better?

Reena Ninan
So acknowledging to your child while you’ve done a great job at helping, but it sounds like they need more? What’s What do you think the next step should be? What do I personally think? No teenager, meaning asking the teen or teenager throwing it back at them? The question, you know, what do you think that we should do next in this situation?

Lisa Damour
I think absolutely right. Like, how can we help you? You know, here’s what I think should happen? How do you think we could go about it exactly. So we want them to be empathic, it can go very far. But it hits its limits, both in terms of sometimes teenagers have more needs than their peers can meet, or teenagers are in situations. And the ones I always watch out for are things like eating disorders, substance, you know, dangerous relationships, which we’ve talked about, out of control, you know, kind of risky behavior in any other form, self harm, you know, things like that. I am very clear with teenagers, like, not your department, way above your paygrade above the pay grade, actually, of every adult who is not trained to deal with that. So let’s get your friend the support they deserve.

Reena Ninan
I’m curious about what this mom overheard, you know, that saying that the girl saying that she had sex with two boys at once. I mean, she really overheard that. I mean, what, what does it change the fact that she, this isn’t coming from her child, she heard it directly? Right.

Lisa Damour
Well it is interesting, right? That this one is not even hearsay, though, of course, we have some questions about like, is it true, right? Who knows? But it’s when you said, when you read that part of the letter, I was like, gosh, like that feels sort of, in some ways, almost implausible, right? That you would hear kids say something like that. But what it reminded me of Rena is the way in which teenagers can actually be very, very free about what they say, in front of adults, and I remember learning this, this is like more than 20 years ago. You know, my husband’s a high school teacher. And when we before we had kids, he was teaching and he was also one of the baseball coaches at his school. And the school got to take us for a trip to Florida over spring break with the baseball team. And so like, we didn’t have kids, and they were like, you want to come? I was like, Sure. Okay, so my husband and I and all the other coaches went to Florida with a pack of teenage boys, which largely involves spending a huge amount of time driving around in a van with a pack of teenage boys. Sounds familiar? Yeah, exactly. And we were in the back. And I was, I mean, I was a young psychologist at that point, and I thought I knew a fair bit about teenagers. I was blown away by how the boys seemed to entirely forget that we were right there. They were talking until Talking about all sorts of stuff that I just would never imagine they would have. And I even said to my husband, I was like, what’s the deal, he’s like, just they forget, we’re here, or doesn’t matter that we’re here, as long as we’re quiet, they’ll just keep going. And so it is plausible to me actually, drawing on experience, that if this is a, you know, this mom is low key contained in another room, that I’m amazed by what and parents will say the same thing, if they like pick kids up from the dance, if the parent is the quiet chauffeur, they will hear everything much more than they expected. So she did over here it I think on this one, again, it has to be taken under advisement, it has to be dealt with carefully. I do wonder if it was said to one of her kids, if there’s value in circling back and saying, you know, she set a record over here, what are you? What are you thinking about this? You know, because that’s a real burden, then for that teenager to be carrying. But to go slow, and ask questions and figure out what’s the risk level here? And how much do we think this is likely to be true? And how do we put it together with other information, we have to intervene in a way that makes the situation, net net better, not worse. So it may be messy at the start, but over time could make it better.

Reena Ninan
That’s so interesting. Sometimes we don’t think about it, we want to make the situation better, not worse. And when you are holder of information that you think that other people should know, sometimes your your reaction is just to tell them to inform. But to step back and say, God, is this, is this really going to help? Or is it going to make it worse?

Lisa Damour
Yeah. And what you’ve brought up right, involving teenagers and trying to sort through what are the available options. Now, one thing that I think can also happen, if the parent trusts the school, you know, and not all the time that it happens, or doesn’t trust everybody at the school, I will say, you know, for a long time I consulted to school in my community, every once in a while, I would get a call from a parent who was trusting me. And they were putting a lot of trust in me. And they would say, I got this information about one of your students, and I just want you to have it, and I will trust you to decide what to do with it. And then they would tell me something like this, you know, I overheard heard this kid say, you know, she was having sex with two kids, or, you know, I overheard, you know, some other story, or my daughter was telling me this, and I don’t know what to do with it. And it’s, I just want you to have this information. And then they would say, let this never be attached to me. Like, let I don’t want any. And if you have someone at the school, you can trust, this can be a very good half step. Because what you’re basically saying is what you’re describing, like I’ve got this information, it’s making me super uncomfortable, I need to hand it off to somebody, right? But I’m not dropping bombs, right? I’m going carefully. And then is the recipient of that information, Reena? Here’s what I was often able to do, just because I had a lot of contextual information. I would think holy moly, this is a third thing I’ve heard about this kid in a month, I’ve heard something from a classmate. I’ve heard something from a teacher who’s wondering what’s going on with this kid. And now I’m getting this call, okay? Like, we’re gonna start to put wheels in motion very carefully to get this kid a lot of support. Or, I would sometimes get a thing. And I’d be like, Okay, this is a kid, we’ve known for a long time, we have a lot of contextual information. Maybe, you know, we’ve known her too sometimes. Say things that don’t really add up in the end, like, like, you don’t want to be judge and jury on these things. But if you can get the information to someone you trust, who has vastly more context, that can actually be a useful path forward.

Reena Ninan
That’s so great that sometimes you can drop information and just tell somebody, I don’t want to be attached to this, but hear this.

Lisa Damour
I want you to have it. I want you to have it.

Reena Ninan
Especially if you do it might cause them harm or danger, irreparable damage of some sort.

Lisa Damour
I feel like the theme of this episode is half steps, right? Like, what’s a half step? And you know, what could you do? That is something but it’s not the strongest first impulse you have. And I’ll tell you right away, I am the world’s biggest fan of half steps. I’ve learned around teenagers and around delicate situations, everything we do has unintended consequences and also unforeseeable consequences. So you think like, I’ll make this call, it’s gonna go this way you make the call, it does not go that way. So I’ve always been careful as I’ve practiced over time to think okay, well, what’s the smallest thing that one could do that makes sense? And let’s see the ramifications of having done that before making the next decision.

Reena Ninan
That makes sense. That’s great advice. So there so much here that you’ve unpacked for us today. What do you think the big thing is? If you were to step back and just bottom line, keep in mind, you’ve talked to us about half steps you talk to us about the kids sort of working together within themselves, you know, amongst themselves without a parent intervening. And when, if it’s a life or death situation, obviously, you don’t hold that information. But what else do you think parents should keep in mind as they’re approaching this type topic?

Lisa Damour
For me, the big thing on this is something I am just holding on to all the time now, which is when it comes to adolescent mental health. The most powerful force is strong relationships with caring adults. And so we can put that to work in two ways on this question. The first is maintaining strong relationships with our own kids by not making end runs around them if we don’t have to. And lots of times you don’t have to. The second is when we are hearing about kids, that we have us worried when we’re hearing things that make us concerned. What I would say is, what do we know about that kid’s relationship with caring adults? And is there anything from the adult position we can do to quietly help to build that? Can we reach out to that kid in a way that’s not weird to try to be supportive? Can we ask our teenagers? Is she on a team? You know, does she do stuff after school? You know, is there an adult at school who has a special eye on that kid, that those relationships on their own, are so about powerful, so therapeutic? I don’t want us to forget about the critical importance of just working to cultivate them all the time.

Reena Ninan
It’s great advice. So much here. And always we have these conversations are things that I just don’t think about because I might need jerk reactions, or you gotta call an adult. And you’re saying, wait, wait, wait, hold on a second. half steps can be your real step forward. I love it. What do you have for us Lisa for Parenting to Go?

Lisa Damour
I think for Parenting to Go… What we want to remember is that by the time a teenager is telling an adult about a concern about appear, they’re pretty worried, you know, teenagers hold a lot of information about each other pretty comfortably. So by the time it gets to the level where they’re like, I need to tell an adult, they it’s weighing on them heavily. So what I would say is not only don’t have your first reaction be to pick up the phone, instead have your first reaction to actually check in with a kid who’s telling you to say to them, whoa, this is really heavy. Like, how are you doing with this? This is this must have been a lot to carry. Just starting there and checking in with that reality before moving into strategy mode about who knows what and who needs to know what and what should we do that with this information. Just take a beat and be there for the kid who came to tell you.

Reena Ninan
Sometimes validating your child’s emotions can be so powerful.

Lisa Damour
Yeah. And they’re worried by the time they’re talking about it. They are worried. And we want to spend some time there too.

Reena Ninan
Thank you, Lisa. And Lisa, next week, we’re going to talk about whether you should bribe your kid. So I’ll see you next week.

Lisa Damour
I’ll see you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

My new book is now available!

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents