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How to Talk to Another Parent About Her Child's Behavior

You're not trying to be a tattletale, but sometimes you have to approach a fellow parent about her kid. If so, here are some tips on how – and when – to have that conversation.

Do people really abide by the adage "It takes a village to raise a child," or do most people today feel they really don't want to get involved in someone else's business? Many parents have been privy to someone else's teenager engaging in destructive or illicit behavior. Is it appropriate to report such behavior to that parent?

When I've discussed this issue with close friends, most have responded, "I would say something if the parent were a friend of mine, because I would want to know." Perhaps when such information comes from a close friend, it is easier for a parent to accept, because she knows that her friend truly cares about her teen's well-being.

These situations are always delicate, though, and parents are often unsure about playing the role of informant.

When is it OK to report?

Parents need to separate hearsay from fact when choosing to inform another parent about her teenager's destructive or dangerous behavior. Witnessing a behavior is a lot different than hearing about it at a soccer game from a third party. Even if a parent believes the source is reliable, he should have solid evidence before approaching another parent with disturbing news about her child. 

Parents should also evaluate the behavior. Is the behavior something that endangers the teen or someone else? Substance abuse, self-harming, relationship violence and gang activities are behaviors that have potential life-threatening consequences and should be reported. 

Rebecca L. Hashim, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, advises, "If you become aware of a teen's destructive behavior, it is important to communicate these concerns to that teen's parent." She says that parents often talk themselves out of reporting such information because they believe it's not their problem or they convince themselves that maybe they're just imagining it and don't investigate further. However, if a parent truly believes a behavior will risk the teen's well-being, it's best to relay the information to the other teen's parent. "If what you have seen or have been told is actually happening and you don't share that information, you run the risk that the destructive behavior continues or even escalates, which can lead to serious consequences," she adds.

"When a parent personally believes that there is a credible and reasonable threat to the life, safety or well-being of her teen as a result of another teen's behavior, the first and most important consideration should be the safety of her teen," explains Gilberto Velez-Domenech, M.D., chief of adolescent medicine at Maria Fareri Children's Hospital located in Westchester Medical Center in New York.

However, some situations are not so clear-cut, such as issues involving sexual behaviors. Velez-Domenech says, "I would advise parents to seriously think twice before ever discussing their own teen's or someone else's teen's sexuality with another parent. The source of the information about a teen's sexuality is almost always second-hand and intrinsically unreliable."

Best way to approach another parent

Velez-Domenech says it's best to approach the other parent directly, in person and with total privacy and discretion.

"The conversation should be straight to the point and non-judgmental, making reference only to the actions of the teen involved and not to his/her person or values," he says.  However, he also says that a parent should not be apologetic.

"Protecting their own children is every parent's right and duty. Protecting other parents' children is a very noble act," he points out.

Be aware that reporting distressing information to another parent may result in a loss of a friendship, strained relations between families, or the other parent not believing that her teen would do such a thing.

Hashim warns, "You do run the risk of the other parent not believing you or becoming upset that you would 'accuse' her child." She reminds parents to weigh the possible consequences and seriousness of the behavior. "If the behavior is potentially serious, it's better in the long run to make the parent aware of it and let him/her handle it as he/she sees fit."

Velez-Domenech warns that emotions will run high because someone's privacy has been violated. "There is a good chance that relationships will be permanently damaged, but it's the price to pay for the safety of the teens involved," he says.

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