What to Do with Sensitive Information from Students

Jonny Radcliff
May 20th, 2019

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who gets into youth ministry and doesn’t dream of becoming a teen’s confidant. There really is no greater honor than to be the recipient of a secret of which only a few have access. Whether a struggle, a dream, a crush, or even an absurdity, once you hit this level, you have arrived

However, with great privilege comes great responsibility. 

There are confessions that cause the youth leader to feel the weight of the information. You want to be a safe presence for your student, but you don’t know if this detail requires outside involvement. You want to seek wisdom from other adults on how to handle this, but you don’t want to break the trust of a vulnerable teen. How do you proceed in these matters? 

While it is asinine to suggest that one document can 100% navigate these murky waters, this flow chart will lead you down a series of questions that will give you a general idea of what your action steps can be after receiving a nugget of sensitive information. 

Ask yourself these questions:

Is there harm or potential harm to self, to others, or from others?
This is the starting point. Although each state has varying regulations that constitute abuse, these three questions cover most cases. If you answer “yes” to this question, the situation is out of your hands. You have an obligation to tag in the appropriate authorities or counselors on the matter. 

Don’t try to be the hero. 

Don’t overstep your role. 

Allow the professionals to do what’s necessary – even though this is the hardest thing you may ever do. (Check out our previous post on 5 Tips For Referring Students To Professionals)

Could this be a life-altering decision?

Teens have a stunted ability to look down the road and see the effects of their decisions. That is where you, the caring adult, come in. 

After receiving this sensitive information, discern whether the actions of the student could lead to a heap of trouble down the road. Legal trouble, possible pregnancy, and running away are all things that are better avoided. 

Have a direct conversation with the student. Tell them the severity of their decisions. Then give them the option of these three actions: They tell their parents on their own (knowing you will follow up with parents), you tell their parents together, or you tell their parents. Continue with grace and sincerity. 

Is this a bad habit or a lifestyle choice?

This is where accountability has the chance to shine. Who doesn’t love the topic of sexual sins, sexual identity, vaping, and addiction? 

It’s odd to say it this way, but it is a privilege to walk alongside a student as they struggle with sin and identity. Feel freedom to bear their secret as long as you will be following up with them constantly and continually offering them the path of freedom.

Still, there is a certain time where, if things can’t be overcome through accountability, the next step is to add other people into the conversation. Proceed with extra discernment. (For more thought development on addiction, check out Addiction: Finding The Way With Students)

Does it go against their parents’ wishes? 

Whether you have a 6th grader who loves to rebel or a 12th grader who thinks being 18 years old makes them an adult, this will always be a struggle for teens. This topic is tricky to navigate. 

We are talking about things that aren’t explicitly wrong except that it goes against their parental law. The range could stretch from who to date, owning a secret iPhone, having a Finsta, or being friends with that one kid. 

No matter what, always affirm the parent’s role in the kid’s life. Help the student figure out on their own how to best honor their parent’s wishes in each area. Once discovered, walk with them down that path.

Is this an isolated incident they did or had done to them? 

Kids will confess dumb decisions they have made: The time they cheated on a test, the time they snuck out of the house, the time they vandalized the desk in study hall – you get it. Help them process on their own how they ought to seek redemption in these situations. Confession is often the key. 

Teens will also have things done to them: The time the best friend stole a significant other, the time that friend group excluded them, or the time bully cut them down. Teach the student how to model forgiveness, fortitude, and resilience in these situations.

Is your situation not described by any of these questions? 

If you’ve reached the bottom and feel lost, be sure to seek extra insight from the person in authority above you.

My final thought to you is this: Lean on the Holy Spirit. Seriously. This isn’t a cute phrase that’s necessary because we are in church work. You serve a God who can lead and guide you in each individual situation. Without His direction, you can make some serious mistakes. Cling to Him. 

Make Him your first stop, not your last resort. 

Jonny Radcliff

Jonny Radcliff is the Student Ministry Director at Storehouse Church and the Philly Area Coordinator at National Network of Youth Ministries. He lives near Philly with his wife and the four little monsters that they rear together. His 13 years of student ministry have been spent in Indiana and Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of Liberty University and Grace Theological Seminary.

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.