Question: My daughter in high school told me that she is concerned about one of her friends, who is drinking and engaging in other behavior that worries her. But she doesn't want me to call the girls' parents or talk about this with anyone else, saying her friend won't trust her if she tells. How can I help without breaking my daughter's confidence?
Answer: One thing that has been extremely helpful to me over the years is to think about what we mean by 'confidential' and 'secret'. I learned these definitions from my friends in 12 step programs, a whole organization based on understanding the distinctions, and how not to confuse or abuse them.
A confidence is something I ask you not to tell because it is not anyone else's business. If I tell a colleague that I am pregnant, and ask them not to tell anyone else at work, this is a confidence. It should be respected and kept to oneself.
A secret is something I ask you not to tell that is the business of others. If I tell a colleague that I am pregnant and ask them not to tell my husband, then this is something they should not agree to do (they don't need to run and tell my husband, but they could simply say, 'I cannot promise to do that').
I think in your case, you are dealing with both. Your daughter has asked you to keep a confidence, and technically, it is not your business what her friend's behavior is. But your daughter's friend has asked her to keep a secret, because it is very much the business of her friend's family to know about her drinking and other activities. So I would say that your challenge here is to coach your daughter on how to let go of the secret, something that could be damaging to her friend in many ways if she keeps it.
Your daughter can start by saying to her friend something that is already true: 'I am worried about your behavior and I am going to have to talk with my mom or dad about it, because I can't handle it.' She can also say, 'If someone asks me, I will not be able to deny that you are drinking', and she can encourage her friend to talk with her parents or with other adults she can trust who might offer her counsel.
This can also alert you to two other things: if you are around this friend, you can be watching for any changes in her behavior or things that concern you about her. If you see something directly, now you are in on the secret, and you can, and I think should, go directly to her parents with your concerns. Also, this is something your daughter has freely shared with you, and so it may be something she herself is struggling with - whether to drink or not, or any other kind of pressure to engage in behavior she feels uncomfortable with. Depending on whether this friend is someone you already know, it is possible that it is a 'friend', and she is wondering how you will react to this news. It might be a chance to open a wider conversation with her about things on her mind.
'Who is my neighbor?', a man asks of Jesus, and to answer him, Jesus tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Afterwards, the man answers his own question - a neighbor is one who shows mercy. 'Go and do likewise', Jesus advises him. Ultimately, what you do should also follow this path: mercy for your daughter, and her friend, and her friend's family.