Friday, May 17, 2013

Teens and Confidentiality

It used to be that there was a very active conversation among parents about when to send your child into the pediatrician alone. Opinions varied from age 9-16 and many felt that it depended on the child's maturity, personality and comfort level.

In Massachusetts, that all changed a few years ago, when a new law mandated that all teens 14 years and older have time alone with their doctor. It was no longer a parental decision based on the unique needs of a particular child. It became a cookie - cutter rule.

You can probably sense that I have a problem with that, but it has also sent me thinking in another direction. I am reminded of a conversation I had with a parent about the youth leaders of her church. She has some concerns about the youth program and has not sent her kids. The leaders have been quite forceful ("almost threatening", the mother said) about wanting access to her kids.

"Your kids are going to do things that they don't tell you about. We'll be able to advise and protect them," they said.

This seriously concerned the mother. "They weren't going to inform me if they found out my child was up to something. They were going to deal with it themselves."

My sense is that these particular youth leaders may need to look at their approach to parents and their overall attitude towards them, but this situation does open up a wider conversation.

How much confidentiality should teens expect from their youth ministers?

Certainly some things -- questions about scripture, struggles with prayer, difficulties with friends, dislike of school and the like -- should be held close to the vest. There are also things that clearly need to be reported -- if the child is threatening to harm themselves or others, parents must be told; abuse needs to be reported to appropriate authorities.

Youth ministers can not always deliver and, therefore, should not promise absolute confidentiality. However, they shouldn't be blabbering about everything that comes up in private conversation or in group meetings. A sense of safety must be preserved. Care must be taken.

So what if a teen is:

Drinking underage?
Experimenting with drugs?
Texting while driving?
Sexually active?
Pregnant/fathering a child?
Considering running away?

What's the line? How do we balance the teen's need for a safe adult to talk to with the parent's right to guide their child's behavior?

In some cases, we can help a teenager speak with their parents, even being a supportive presence during a difficult conversation. Other times, we may choose to advise the teen ourselves. Sometimes, we may call the parents.

But, again, how do we decide? This can be a difficult balancing act.

I'd love to open up a conversation. How do you handle these things? How would you want your child's youth leader to handle them? Teens, what's your perspective? Please share your thoughts.


  1. Of course, I come at this issue from a "compliance" perspective with my "lawyer" hat on. Youth Ministers can fall into the category of confidential advisor, and therefore at a certain age any discussion is protected under confidentiality laws. However, "wearing that hat" also makes them a mandatory reporter for certain instances. Ultimately, how much training does a Youth Minister have? Is the person qualified to work as a counselor, minister, therapist, social worker (you get my drift) or simply someone who has the gift and has been called by God to serve/volunteer. Volunteers are different from trained, educated, licensed counselors/ministers. It definitely is a murky territory. Personally, I think age 15 and up should afford a teenager a certain level of confidentiality.

  2. I was thinking more of the volunteer, "untrained" youth leader. That is who I have the most contact with and I think they are more common than professional youth ministers (perhaps sadly)

    A certain level of confidentiality may apply at any age. But a responsible 16 year old who is considering sexual activity with a 17 year old partner but plans to visit a doctor first is in a much different situation than a 15 year old thinking of losing their virginity to a 22 year old (or a 13 year old and a 17 year old). The first is a matter of moral choice and a youth minister can approach it from that perspective. The second adds the very serious possibilities of exploitation and unreadiness to handle consequences to the mix. I think the response could be very different.