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My teen told me a troubling secret about her boyfriend. What do I do?

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4 min

Q: How do I help my daughter’s friend who is hearing voices? My daughter is 14 and has her first boyfriend, and he is very attached. They have known each other since sixth grade and started spending time outside of school with each other this summer.

She recently told me that he confided in her that he sometimes hears voices. He has been concerned enough to research it online and thinks he may have schizophrenia. I cannot betray her trust and tell his parents. I thought about telling the school counselor, but I keep encouraging her to tell him to talk to his mom. Should I do anything else?

A: Thank you for writing in. This is a difficult situation, made harder by the fact that you are hearing everything secondhand. It’s good news that the young man has started his own research, but it can be terrifying to believe you have schizophrenia and to hold on to this secret.

Let’s look at schizophrenia a bit. The onset for this mental illness is younger for men than it is for women, with the youngest being diagnosed around age 13. Symptoms of schizophrenia include hallucinations, delusions, cognitive issues and flat affect. The earliest symptoms tend to be hallucinations, so it makes sense that this young man searched his symptoms and came up with schizophrenia as a diagnosis.

But here’s why loving adults, pediatricians and psychologists need to be involved: Hallucinations can also be brought about by the use of drugs, such as methamphetamines and marijuana, or by a serious and chronic use of psychedelics. The voices could also be a sign of other mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, major depression or even obsessive-compulsive disorder. Voices can also be related to trauma or everyday stress.

The point is that there are many reasons this young man could be hearing voices, and the sooner he gets support, the more likely he is to receive the proper diagnosis and treatment. (By the way, many people live full lives with schizophrenia, even though it is not curable.)

As a parent, you of course want to keep your child’s confidence whenever possible. But there is also a time to sit with your daughter and let her know that it is your obligation as a parent and an adult to help this young man. This is really a values discussion with your child. You value keeping your word, but a greater value is the physical safety of a minor. This is life. (Just as most of us value nonviolence, we will fight back to protect ourselves from assault.)

From there, create a list of solutions and their possible outcomes. Just as keeping his secret may have a consequence, so will telling his secret. So what are the different ways you can help your daughter? Discussions like this are crucial, because your daughter will inevitably run into and be friends with people who are being abused, abusing substances or having mental health problems, and you want her to feel empowered — and not afraid — to come to you.

Sit down with your daughter, begin a values discussion and talk about the importance of getting clarity around these symptoms for his well-being. Don’t sugarcoat that this will be easy; just keep the discussion focused on safety and his well-being. If you focus on finding a cooperative solution, even if it isn’t your first choice, it will be a good step forward.

The caveat to all of this is: If the young man shows any suicidal ideation or violence toward himself or others, please contact his parents immediately.

Trust your intuition, but please don’t leave your young teen to deal with this on her own. People are built to rely on each other, and by finding a solution, you are helping to release the stigma associated with mental illness. Good luck.

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