My daughter has confided in me that one of her friends is cutting herself, and she is concerned that her friend may really hurt herself – or worse, chas v’shalom. She made me promise not to tell anyone.
What are my obligations and responsibilities to my daughter, her friend and her friend’s parents?
Name Withheld by Request
The matter of children or young adults engaging in self-destructive behavior such as the ‘cutting’ that you noted in your question is a very serious matter – and far more common that we would like to think. In fact, I will make a bold statement and say that all frum teenage girls nowadays have either only one ‘degree of separation’ or two ‘degrees of separation’ between them and someone who is actually cutting herself – meaning that they personally know a young lady who is engaging in this practice, or know someone who knows a ‘cutter’. In next week’s column, I will respond to the issue of the ‘cutting’ and what you ought to be doing to help your daughter’s friend. (For the record, I already reached out to the writer of the letter in order to get her professional help in dealing with this dilemma.)
This week, I would like to draw attention to the promise that you made to your daughter, “not to tell anyone.” The quandary that you now find yourself faced with raises several ethical questions:
- In light of the emotional turmoil and potentially life-threatening danger to your daughter’s friend, are you morally bound by the promise that you made to your daughter?
- If (or rather when) you will be faced with a similar dilemma in the future, would it be wiser to simply tell your daughter outright that you cannot promise, “not to tell anyone?”
- How about the overall privacy matter with your own children? Is it OK to ‘check-up’ (or as the kids might say, snoop) on them – look in their drawers/pockets, listen in on their conversations, or check their email/IM’s/website history – in the effort to keep them safe and out of trouble?
Perhaps the best way to gain clarity in this complex web of ethical dilemmas is to first address question #3 – the matter of privacy as it relates to your children.
One of the crucial underpinnings of any meaningful relationship is to establish a sense of trust. Because trust is built up slowly over the course of time and so easily eroded, it is of paramount importance that parents are deemed trustworthy and honest by their children. That means never being dishonest with them and not violating their sense of privacy unless it is absolutely necessary.
It is of paramount important for your children to have a sense of privacy in their home. In addition to developing a sense of comfort and belonging, in the long term, it also helps them establish appropriate boundaries that help protect them from abuse/sexual predators/molesters. For if children are raised to feel that they have a sacred right to ‘their own space,’ they are far less likely to allow others to invade that space and mistreat them in the future. (This is a very important matter, and I will address this in a future column.)
You may want to ask your children if they would like to have a private drawer in their room where they can keep a diary or other personal possessions. It may be helpful to keep in mind the sage advice of one of our generation’s outstanding mechanchim, Rabbi Shlome Wolbe z’tl, who often commented that children are miniature adults and need to be treated with the same respect that we would afford other adults.
Always be candid and up-front with your children. If you are inclined to check their IM’s or website history, for example, (and in today’s climate, maintaining that level of vigilance is more than prudent advice), inform them in advance that you will be doing so. If you are worried about the behaviors and friends of your teen child and are apprehensive that he or she may be engaged in destructive activities, such as alcohol abuse/drug use, it would be wise to inform them of your concerns and clearly state that you may feel the need to occasionally suspend your rules of privacy in order to keep a more watchful eye on them.
Please don’t go the route of regularly snooping on your children. Trust me, your children will find out what you are doing. It is only a matter of time until they do. And when that happens, they will rightfully feel violated, and you may find that you have created a terrible rift in your crucial relationship with them. I personally know of more than one young adult who left home – permanently, ultimately abandoning Yiddishkeit – over having their privacy regularly violated. This is not to suggest that this was the only reason – there rarely is only one reason – but this was the final straw.
When discussing privacy boundaries with your children, it is good practice to stake your claim to occasionally and rarely violate these rules if you think they are engaging in life-threatening or destructive behaviors. You may wish to use the analogy of a firefighter, who doesn’t knock politely on doors when opening them to extinguish an active fire. If you have established healthy boundaries – and trust – over the course of time, your relationship will survive the stress associated with the suspension of your house rules for privacy. And deep down, your children will respect you for caring. But they will find it hard to forgive you if you violate their trust and snoop on them.
With that in mind, I think that the answer to question #2 would be to tell your child that you cannot promise, “not to tell anyone,” if someone’s life may be in danger. You should assure her, however, that you would not take any action without discussing it with her in advance.
As for helping her help her friend, I strongly feel that expert, professional help is required for the ‘cutting’ matter. This is not something that well-meaning individuals (like myself, for example) with no professional training should touch at all. The best thing we can do as responsible adults is to place the young lady in the hands of an expert who can guide her properly.
It may be a good idea for you to find a mental health professional with training in self-destructive behaviors and take your daughter to speak to him or her. He or she can help your daughter understand her friend’s actions, and then your daughter can recommend to her friend that she see this doctor or clinician. In this way, you will not have violated her privacy and will be offering her meaningful help.
In closing, I commend you on being an involved parent, one who has earned the trust of your daughter. The fact that she confided in you speaks volumes about the quality of your parenting skills. Rav Shimon Schwab z’tl notes that the first time the word re’ah (friend) is mentioned in the Torah is related to the incident of Yehudah’s misdeed (see Bereshis 38:20). Yehudah found himself in a very uncomfortable position during the incident with Tamar, and he reached out for the help of an individual, who is introduced to us as Chirah re’eihu; Chirah, his friend. Rav Schwab explains that since Yehudah was comfortable confiding in this man after he had sinned, he was crowned with the title of “re’eihu – his friend.”
For a friend is one who listens without judging. A friend is one with whom you can let your guard down. A friend is someone whose friendship is genuine and everlasting.
Fortunate are those who have parents who guide them, who constructively criticize them, who set limits for them, who teach them right from wrong by personal example, and who are … their friends.
© 2006 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved