My daughter has confided in me that one of her friends is cutting herself, and she is concerned that her friend may really hurt herself – or worse, chas v’shalom. She made me promise not to tell anyone.
What are my obligations and responsibilities to my daughter, her friend and her friend’s parents?
Name Withheld by Request
Rabbi Horowitz Responds
The matter of children or young adults engaging in self-destructive behavior, such as the “cutting” that you noted in your question, is a very serious matter – and far more common than we would like to think. In fact, I will submit that all frum teenage girls nowadays have either only one “degree of separation” or two “degrees of separation” between them and someone who is actually cutting herself. This means that they personally know a young lady who is engaging in this practice, or know someone who knows a “cutter.” In my next column, I will respond to the issue of the “cutting” and what you ought to be doing to help your daughter’s friend. (For the record, I already reached out to the writer of the letter in order to get her professional help in dealing with this dilemma.)
This week I would like to draw attention to the promise you made to your daughter, namely not to tell anyone. The quandary that you now find yourself faced with raises several ethical questions:
1. In light of the emotional turmoil and potentially life-threatening danger to your daughter’s friend, are you morally bound by the promise you made to her?
2. If (or when) you will be faced with a similar dilemma in the future, would it be wiser to simply tell your daughter outright that you cannot promise not to tell anyone?
3. How about the overall privacy matter with your own children? Is it OK to check up (or as the kids might say, snoop) on them by looking in their drawers/pockets, listening in on their conversations or checking their e-mail/IM/website history – in your effort to keep them safe and out of trouble?
Perhaps the best way to gain clarity in this complex web of ethical dilemmas is to first address question #3 – the matter of privacy as it relates to your children.
A crucial underpinning of any meaningful relationship is developing a sense of trust. Because trust is built up slowly over the course of time and so easily eroded, it is very important that children deem parents trustworthy and sincere. That means never being dishonest with them and not violating their sense of privacy unless it is absolutely necessary.
It is of paramount importance for your children to have a sense of privacy in their home. In addition to developing a sense of comfort and belonging, in the long term, it also helps them establish appropriate boundaries that help protect them from abuse/sexual predators/molesters. If children are raised to feel that they have a sacred right to their “own space,” they are far less likely to allow others to invade that space and mistreat them in the future. (This is a very important matter that I addressed in my 2-part column on abuse prevention. Visit my website, www.rabbihorowitz.com, for those articles.)
It may be helpful to keep in mind the sage advice of one of our generation’s outstanding mechanchim, Rabbi Shlome Wolbe, zt”l, who often commented that children are miniature adults who need to be treated with the same respect that we would afford other adults.
Always be candid and up-front with your children. If you are inclined to check their IM or website history, for example, (and in today’s climate, maintaining that level of vigilance is very prudent advice), inform them in advance that you will be doing so. If you are worried about the behaviors and friends of your teenagers, and are apprehensive that he or she may be engaged in destructive activities (such as alcohol and/or drug abuse), it would be wise to inform them of your concerns. You might also clearly state that you may feel the need to occasionally suspend your rules of privacy in order to keep a more watchful eye on them.
Please don’t go the route of regularly snooping on your children. Trust me, your children will find out what you are doing. It is only a matter of time until they do. And when that happens, they will rightfully feel violated, and you may find that you have created a terrible rift in your vital relationship with them. I personally know of more than one young adult who left home permanently – ultimately abandoning Yiddishkeit – over having their privacy regularly violated. This is not to suggest that this was the only reason (there rarely is only one reason), but this was the final straw.
When discussing privacy boundaries with your children, it is a good practice to stake your claim to occasionally – and rarely – violate these rules if you think they are engaging in life-threatening or destructive behaviors. You may wish to use the analogy of a firefighter, who doesn’t knock politely on doors when opening them to extinguish a fire. If you have established healthy boundaries – and trust – over time, your relationship will survive the stress associated with the suspension of your house privacy rules. And deep down, your children will respect you for caring. But they will find it hard to forgive you if you violate their trust by snooping on them.
With that in mind, I think that the answer to question #2 would be to tell your daughter that you cannot promise not to tell anyone if someone’s life may be in danger. You should assure her, however, that you would not take any action without discussing it with her in advance.
As for helping her assist her friend, I strongly feel that expert, professional help is required for the “cutting” matter. This is not something that well-meaning individuals with no professional training – like me – should touch at all. The best thing we can do as responsible adults is place the young lady in the hands of an expert who can guide her properly.
It may be a good idea for you to find a mental health professional with training in self-destructive behaviors and take your daughter to speak with him or her. He or she can help your daughter understand her friend’s actions, and then your daughter can recommend to her friend that she see this doctor or clinician. In this way, you will not have violated her privacy and will be offering her meaningful help.
In closing, I commend you on being an involved parent, one who has earned the trust of your daughter. The fact that she confided in you speaks volumes about the quality of your parenting skills. Rav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, notes that the first time the word re’ah (friend) is mentioned in the Torah relates to the incident of Yehudah’s misdeed (see Bereshis 38:20). Yehudah found himself in a very uncomfortable position during the incident with Tamar, and he reached out for the help of an individual, who is introduced to us as Chirah re’eihu (Chirah his friend). Rav Schwab explains that since Yehudah was comfortable confiding in this man after he had sinned, he was crowned with the title of “re’eihu.”
A friend is one who listens without judging. A friend is one with whom you can let your guard down. A friend is someone whose friendship is genuine and everlasting.
Fortunate are those who have parents who guide them, who constructively criticize them, who set limits for them, who teach them right from wrong by personal example, and who are their friends.
© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved.
Note to readers: In the next column, we will address the issues of “cutting” and self-destructive behaviors.
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is the founder and menahel of Yeshiva Darchei Noam of Monsey, and the founder and director of Agudath Israel’s Project Y.E.S. To review and download a free pre-publication copy of Rabbi Horowitz’s “Bright Beginnings Chumash Workbook,” please visit his website, www.rabbihorowitz.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 845-352-7100 x 133.