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When Should You Tell On Someone?

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When Should You Tell On Someone?

Friendships and peer relationships are at the core of adolescence. As teenagers are pulling away from their parents and forming their own separate identities, they begin to rely on and value their peers far more than their own families.

These friendships are often very close and very intense, as teens often share their innermost thoughts and feelings with their closest friends. There is usually a sort of unspoken rule that whatever is shared with one another remains confidential. And it usually does.

But what do you when someone confides in you something that you know you “ought” to tell someone about?

These can be rough waters to navigate. On the one hand, you do not want to ever betray a friend who has confided in you. On the other hand, what are the potential consequences of not telling? Perhaps this person is in need of some intervention or some help. Maybe they are in a dangerous situation or something harmful has happened or might happen.

My advice is to trust your gut. When your gut tells you something isn’t right, you might feel shaky, lose your appetite, or have trouble sleeping. If you are the holder of some information that is making you feel this way, it is best to err on the side of caution and safety. A true friend always does what is best, not what is easiest. And while a friend might get upset with you for violating their trust, they usually get over that and often even thank you in the long run.

Here are some things to keep in mind and some tips for handling telling on a friend:

  1. Even when someone is adamant about keeping what they told you a secret, the fact that they told anyone at all is often a sign that they are crying out for help. It is completely normal for them to feel afraid about having their secret exposed. Example: What if your friend confided in you that she was raped and never told anyone? Of course, this is a serious crime and the emotional toll can be high. It is likely that your friend needs some help and resources, but might also feel ashamed and scared about people finding out.
  2. Think things through a bit. What is your gut telling you? How would you feel if it was you and the roles were reversed? Would you want someone to tell? Example: Your friend just told you that he’s been cutting himself lately. Nobody knows because he’s been hiding it under his clothing. You know that this is a sign of serious pain and emotional trouble. Would you want someone to tell so you could get the help you need?
  3. What is the best possible outcome if you tell someone? For example: If your friend’s uncle molested her, and you told an adult, your friend could get counseling to move past the trauma and heal, and the uncle would no longer have access to harm any other children.
  4. Choose the most caring and empathetic adult to tell that you are able to, and handle things in the gentlest and most discreet manner that you can. If there is a family member or teacher or counselor that you trust, tell them. If your friend has a suggestion as to whom to tell, go to that person.
  5. What is the worst possible outcome if you don’t tell? For example: Your friend confided in you that he is depressed and you know that his family keeps a gun in the house. He could potentially kill himself or someone else if you don’t tell anyone.
  6. Make sure to tell your friend that you’re going to be telling someone, so that they can be prepared emotionally. They might get angry or upset with you initially, but eventually will thank you. If not, you might lose a friend but perhaps have at least saved a life.
  7. Give yourself a break. It is hard, if not impossible, to always make the right decision. Sometimes there is no clear right or wrong. Just do the best you can.

Sometimes being a true friend means doing something that benefits your friend, even if it might hurt the friendship or seem difficult. Ultimately, you do know right from wrong, and you do have the ability to determine when someone might really need help, even if they don’t realize it or even want it.

Trust in yourself, your good intentions, and your natural instincts. You just might make a difference in someone’s life.

Lori Freson Lori Freson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Southern California. She has been working in the mental health field since 1997, and has been a licensed therapist since 2002. Lori currently works in her own thriving private practice in Encino and Sherman Oaks, where she serves the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles areas.
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