Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Lesson From Penn State: Sometimes Loyalty Can Be Harmful To Your Health

Recently a big sexual abuse scandal broke on the campus of Penn State. It wasn't bad enough that a long-time assistant football coach was caught in the act of raping a young boy of 9 in the football locker room showers, but adding insult to injury, a cloak of silence was wrapped around this coach to protect him and the Penn State football program from investigation. It seems it was more important to protect each other from scandal, than to protect this young boy, and any future victims from this pedophile. Of course the issues raised from this scandal are increasing exponentially, but the question of loyalty vs accountability, responsibility and safety are at it's core.

As in most public scandals there are many lessons to be learned, both by the people involved and the community at large. A lesson that stands out for me and that I think is an important issue to discuss with your teen is this: When does the job of being loyal to the people close to you no longer apply? Teens often find themselves in situations when this very dilemma is questioned. There is nothing, and I mean nothing that stands in the way of a teen and their friends. If you so much as criticize even the most obvious fault in one of their buddies, the gauntlet is thrown down. The cardinal rule of "don't talk bad about my boy/girl has been broken, and you will pay dearly for breaking it.

This lack of objectivity about their friends can often put them in situations that are scary, and unsafe. They become caught in the bind of doing what they know is right, vs protecting their relationship at all costs. Just like at Penn State. Perhaps your teen has a close friend that is depressed, perhaps even suicidal, is engaging in self-destructive behavior, has a serious eating disorder or is abusing drugs and/or alcohol. Maybe they have been with a friend who has been drinking or doing drugs, and though they won't get in the car with them, they won't grab the keys away from this compromised driver, leaving the fate of a possible drunk driving accident in the hands of their drunk friend. Loyalty, secrecy, and trust, these are powerful promises. The risk of losing this friend should they break this oath of loyalty is usually stronger than the reality of possibly literally losing their friend.

I asked my college students last week, after this story broke, what they would have done if they had walked in on their favorite and respected coach/teacher/pastor/uncle/neighbor abusing a child in some way, as happened in this Penn State case. Immediately and without pause they all yelled we would pull him off the kid and call the police. Then I painted a different picture.  This is a person who has mentored you, who has always had your back, and with whom you have shared difficult feelings.  Would you still do the same thing?  Though they still felt they would have called the police, and intervened, their responses were not so adamant.

This Penn State case can be a used as a valuable tool to help your teen talk about their own issues of loyalty vs safety. Here is your " I Get it" moment. " Hey honey have you heard about this story at Penn State. Pretty scary stuff isn't it. I get that this student who walked in on the coach had a strong sense of loyalty to this guy, and though I am sure he knew that this guy was doing wrong, he didn't really want to get him in trouble. This is really hard stuff for a young person. I'm guessing there must be times that you are in a position of questioning whether you should do something you know is right but worry that it might get your friend in trouble. Maybe you have a friend who you worry is depressed, or you know drinks or does too many drugs, or is in a scary relationship and they talk to you about it but make you promise not to tell anybody. That is a lot of responsibility to carry around. I am always here to help you with this stuff and I promise I won't call their parents or the school, but I am here to help you deal with it all. I would never want you to think that loyalty trumps safety. Making sure that your friend is safe, is way more important than whatever secret they have given you to hold."

This is such an important issue to address with your teen. There is too much at stake not to.

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