Expecting teens to talk and tell

Melissa Martin, Ph.D.

There is a “don’t talk and tell” pact among teenagers. Young people are extremely loyal to each other, and that is a strength. However, it becomes a weakness when friends or peers threaten homicide or suicide, and when telling an adult is seen as betrayal. Teens perceive confidentiality with peers to be serious business. And snitching is perceived as unforgivable.

As a therapist, I’ve interacted with many teens who proclaimed they would never betray a trust, even if a friend was suicidal or in danger. And when teens do tell adults, they experience immense and intense guilt. I would rather be covered in honey with a band of swarming bees nearby than to relive the turbulent teen years.

According to the Pacer Center website, in regards to adolescents telling parents about being bullying, “Some kids go weak in the knees when they think how their parents might overreact. They’re sure their mom or dad will do something to make the situation worse, like calling the school or the other kid’s parents.” There are myriad reasons why teens don’t reveal social concerns to parents.

How do adults convince a teen to reveal a peer’s threat to shoot up a school?

The family members of loved ones killed at the Sandy Hook School in Connecticut created the “Say Something” campaign to encourage middle and high school students to inform school officials or other trusted adults if they hear threats or observe other warning signs.

But, should it be left up to teens to reveal a friend’s threat to shoot up a school?

That’s a lot of pressure for a teenage brain and a lot of guilt if a shooting does happens. And if a teen tells on a friend who is just blowing off steam — what becomes of their friendship.

According to Dr. Frances Jensen on a 2017 PBS interview, “Teenagers do have frontal lobes, which are the seat of our executive, adult-like functioning like impulse control, judgment and empathy. But the frontal lobes haven’t been connected with fast-acting connections yet.” Is the teen brain able to make a logical judgment about whether a friend’s threat to kill others is factual or fiction?

Or should it be the responsibility of adults in the teen’s life (i.e., parents, grandparents, relatives, teachers, school counselors and psychologists, coaches, pediatricians and other helping professionals) to pay closer attention to the teenagers under their care?

It is the responsibility of parents/guardians to know what is going on in the daily life of their adolescent and to know their kid’s friends. Listening, listening, and listening more benefits teens and parents. Teens need a safe place and space to reveal secrets, fears, and moral dilemmas.

It is the responsibility of parents and adults to lock up guns and ammunition safe and secure.

It is the responsibility of adults to make mental health counseling available to teens in their state, county, city, community and school.

It is the responsibility of school personnel to identify red flags and intervene with help and solutions. But funding for more teachers, more school counselors and school psychologists, and more after school programs has to become a priority.

It is the responsibility of politicians to pass legislation, because teenagers cannot legally vote.

It is the responsibility of the local police department to investigate reports of potential harm from a threatening teen and to take action, make referrals and follow through.

One of my favorite books is “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk,” by authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (2012 updated edition) published by Scribner.

I believe the adults are charged with providing safe and secure environments for adolescents. However, adults do need to converse with kids about what to do when a peer or friend reveals suicidal or homicidal fantasies or plans. Keeping the communication door open with teenagers is essential.


Melissa Martin, Ph.D.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio. www.melissamartinchildrensauthor.com.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio. www.melissamartinchildrensauthor.com.