What secrets can you keep?

You expect your mentee to confide in you, but sometimes they disclose information that needs to be shared.

Young people who feel close and connected to their mentor are more likely to open up and share. In fact, many mentors first realize they are making a difference when their mentee begins to confide in them: it is a sure sign the relationship is developing in a positive way. However, mentees sometimes share information that a mentor can’t keep to him or herself. So with this increase in trust, where is the line?

Michigan State University Extension recommends mentors talk about confidentiality early in the relationship and let youth know what can be kept private and what would need to be reported to program staff or a parent. Every mentoring program has a slightly different policy regarding confidentiality, but almost all programs agree that a mentor must contact someone if s/he believes the mentee is in danger of harming himself or someone else. Even with this clear policy, the definition of “harm” can be confusing. Harm can be immediate and obvious, like a threat, but what about harm that is more subtle? It is important to talk to program staff to determine the type of information a mentor must report. It is much easier to break a confidence if your mentee knows you have to.

Reporting something to program staff or a parent can be uncomfortable. Here are a few tips to get through it.

  1. Give your mentee a choice. “This is one of those things that we have to report to the program staff. Would you like to tell our case worker or should I?”
  2. Let your mentee know what you are going to do. “Remember when we talked about confidentiality and I told you I had to tell the program staff or your mom if I was ever worried about you? I need to talk to them because I am worried. Would you like to be there when I tell them what you just told me?”
  3. Let your mentee know you care. “I really enjoy spending time with you and I hope you know I keep almost everything  you tell me between us, but this is something I can’t keep to myself.”
  4. Talk to program staff. They can help determine whether the parent needs to be included or not.  For instance, if your mentee reports having tried a cigarette and hating it, it may be less important to share with a parent than if your mentee asked you to buy cigarettes for her. The intent is not to harm your relationship or get the young person in trouble, but rather to keep him/her safe.

While it may be awkward, having to deal with one of these difficult situations can actually make your relationship stronger if you communicate with your mentee along the way and give him/her choices in the process.

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