Managing Confidentiality

October 3rd, 2009

“So I've been smoking with some friends lately.” The seriousness with which Jared was sharing this with me suggested that he wasn't talking about cigarettes.

“You mean you were smoking pot?”


Then a pause. “You're not going to tell my parents I smoked, are you?”

How do we respond to questions like that? We all know that as youth workers, we aren't to take the place of parents, but to help them raise their children. Would I want to know if my kids were smoking pot? Of course, but what role does confidentiality play? Are we bound by legality or morality to break confidence in a situation like this?

I'm sure it's just that I'm getting older than I realize, but it does seem like even the good kids these days are finding it harder and harder to stay away from compromising situations. If we go to the parents every time we hear something, word will get around quickly that “you can't open up to the youth pastor—he'll just squeal.” But if we sit on information about a student engaging in illegal or dangerous activity, something worse could happen.

Legally Speaking

Pastors are legally protected in ways that even licensed therapists are not. Your state may have different laws, but generally speaking, the courts encourage parishioners to be open with their ministers. Of course, common sense tells you that if you know of or suspect abuse or the imminent threat of students doing injury to themselves or another, the proper authorities should be contacted immediately. Having said that, it's often hard to figure out what to do with the information students offer you that falls into a gray area.

The reality is that Jared isn't in any immediate danger by smoking pot a few times, but it's also clear that he's making neither a legal nor a healthy choice. And it's only a matter of time before this poor choice could lead to much more dangerous ones. And what about students cutting themselves, not to attempt suicide, but as a means of self-mutilation? Each crisis situation has its specific dos and don'ts; but generally speaking, what do we do with the information presented to us?

Establishing Trust

Welcome to walking the fine line between being their friend and showing them “tough love.” Many have walked this road before you, and there's been carnage on both sides. On one side of the line, you find youth workers who've committed themselves so deeply to being a student's friend that they lose any ability to speak truth. One youth worker I read about even convinced himself that getting high with students was the only way he could truly reach out to them.

On the other side of the line are those who never seem to have students open up to them because the minute anything controversial comes up, the parents are called, trust is broken, and the opportunity to make a difference is lost. There's a reason why they're talking to us and not their parents. We have to take our role seriously and be willing to navigate this line with wisdom and care.

The best scenario occurs when a student wants to meet with you to talk about personal issues. In that case, you can establish some ground rules from the outset. For instance, we can tell the student what he or she can expect from us, namely that we won't break confidentiality unless we feel they're going to harm themselves or someone else. One counselor I spoke to promises that there'll be no surprises. Specifically, he won't report anything to the parents without first letting the student know and will only do so if he feels it's absolutely necessary. This way, the student knows what to expect. For your own protection (and to help you keep track of any counseling sessions with kids) it's also a good idea to keep password-protected counseling notes.

Other Adult Involvement

We're only one part of the solution to helping any student; their parents or guardians must be another key part. We should continually be looking for ways to encourage students to open up and share what's happening with them, even if it's at a superficial level. You may want to set up a meeting with the parents, not to squeal but to ask questions about what's going on at home. The student's school counselor is another resource you should consider using.

When advising adult volunteers about handling difficult situations, empower them to handle as much as possible themselves, but make sure they keep you informed. They'll likely need your help, and you can offer further resources such as counselors or church leaders who can provide wisdom as well. If at any point you or they feel they're in over their heads, don't be afraid to step in. And if a situation is serious, you should keep your own immediate supervisor in the loop.

The Code of Silence

Recently, a student in our youth ministry was dealing with severe depression and making some extremely unhealthy choices. Several of his close friends in the ministry knew about it, yet their unspoken code of silence kept them from telling anyone about it, until he finally attempted suicide. Thankfully, he survived and is receiving professional attention now, but it could've been utterly tragic. And none of his friends were willing to step forward, because no one wanted to be the rat.

In light of situations like this, we all need to teach our students about the importance of taking action when their friends are heading down unhealthy paths. We should teach them that true friends are willing to confront loved ones who they know are hurting themselves. Students are often too immature to recognize when confrontation is necessary. Or else they're so concerned with their reputation that the fear of being a rat or a narc (yes, high schoolers still use that word) will keep them quiet. So we must teach our students that their fear of God must outweigh their fear of man, and we must create a culture that values loving student-to-student confrontation. Finally, if that isn't effective, students should be encouraged to bring an adult into the loop.

Taking Action

If we're the adult who's contacted, we must remember it's now up to us to do something about it. The government has been running a string of very effective ads encouraging students to take action about a friend's drug problem, and taking this information to a responsible adult is sometimes the best a student can do. You've become that responsible adult. Failure to act at this point is simply unacceptable.

If you're looking for additional resources related to combating drug use, the best ones I've come across are the government's anti-drug Web sites, one for parents (www.theantidrug.com) and one for students (www.freevibe.com). It also would be a good idea to develop a list of counselors in the area to whom you can refer interested parties.

Dealing with Rumors

Rumors are a sticky issue, because we just don't know when they're true and when they're not. I hear statements like, “Everybody knows that Tammy smokes pot every weekend.” My response is, “Have you or one of Tammy's friends talked to her about it?” If someone is genuinely concerned about Tammy, then that concern should lead the person to ascertain the rumor's authenticity.

We can cause more problems by taking every rumor at face value and taking action based on it. If the rumor isn't true and you call Tammy's parents, they get upset and Tammy gets in trouble for no reason. This also teaches students two lessons you don't want to teach: 1) Sharing rumors with the youth pastor gets the naughty kids in trouble; and 2) If the youth pastor confronts their peers, they don't have to.

When Confidentiality Must Be Broken

There are times when the gray area becomes black and white. In such a situation, swift action must be taken. For instance, if you're certain that a student has moved beyond experimentation and is using an illegal drug regularly or engaging in the sale of drugs, parents should be notified. In this situation, depending on your relationship with the student, you may want to let him know you're going to the parents, especially if he'll likely find out anyway. Or you could offer him 24 hours to tell his parents himself, or offer for him to go with you.

If a student's talking seriously about taking her own life, it's also time for action. Remember that parents will always forgive you for erring on the side of caution.

In the case of a student who you know or strongly suspect is being abused by his parents, huddle with a trusted church leader who can help you report it. Defending the defenseless must be a priority.

Unfortunately, there are few hard and fast rules. Crisis situations are complicated and must be navigated with prayer, wisdom, and the help of trusted advisers. Though one of the most important parts of the job of a youth worker, it's also one of the least tidy.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.