Playmate's house doesn't feel safe

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  January 26, 2011 06:00 AM

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Barbara-
I am looking for some moral support and direction. There are some issues in the home of my elementary-aged children's friends. For a while I have been concerned that one of the parents is using drugs and about the presence of prescription drugs in the house, unlocked and in plain view on bedside tables, for example. I do try not to have my children over unsupervised by me, but it is getting harder as they get older. Their friends are lovely children. I don't want to cut off contact, but I noticed their parent nodding off and looking high today during a playdate. I am really torn. I do not want to speak to the family directly about this (I have in the past, pointedly, i.e. "if you have medications or drugs lying around and/or are using I cannot let my kids in your home." It did no good, of course). Other than banning my kids from this household, which I am again feeling I must do, how to deal with this?

From: Elem Mom, Anonymous location

Dear Elem Mom,

If moral support is what you are looking for, you've come to the right place. A parent nodding out? If your child was 4, you wouldn't think twice about this. Just because they are older doesn't make it more acceptable. It's true that you can't protect your child from every contingency but don't underestimate the importance of providing a role model for what to do if a situation doesn't feel safe: exit.

Of course, you can't just ban your kids from playing there. They deserve an explanation. Make it truthful but age appropriate. I'd start with a conversation about adult supervision. What is it like at your house when their friends come to visit? Do you pop in on them now and then? Talk to them, show an interest in them? Do you have rules about what they can and can't do or play? Are you there if there is a problem? What about snacks? Are they healthy? Do you think your friends feel safe at your house?

Now ask some of the same questions for what it's like when they go to friends' homes, starting with homes you know are well-supervised and working your way to this home, which you suspect is not. See if they volunteer that there is a difference, or something that makes them feel less safe there. If they don't, you can say simply that as the parent, it's your job to keep them safe, and that includes feeling safe about someone's house. You have seen medicine lying about there and that isn't safe to you. You can talk about how at your house, medicine is always kept safely in a cabinet, away from children. You don't need to get any more elaborate than that.

If you have had, or want to have, a conversation about good and bad drugs, this is certainly one of those teachable moments. Your choice, but if by older elementary you mean fourth or fifth grade, I would probably go there. BTW, wouldn't be afraid that you are being overly intrusive into your children's play lives; by this age, they can see for themselves that something is amiss in this home. They will feel safer for knowing you are setting a limit, even if they protest that limit. One caution: Don't just say they can't go there. Mean it.

Meanwhile, none of this means that the children are off-limits. If your kids want to play with them, invite them to your house.

Of course, there are still thorny questions here: (1) Do you owe these parents the courtesy of an explanation for why your kids can't play there anymore? (2) Do you have an obligation to these children? That is, to notify school authorities or social services? (3) What about an obligation to other potential playmates? At the least, I would argue that you have an obligation to tell the parents, especially since you have spoken to them before. If you're not comfortable doing it face to face, do it in writing.

I hope readers weigh in on this one!

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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14 comments so far...
  1. I like Barbara's approach. However, I don't think it's worth talking to the parents. Just politely decline invitations to their home. If they are pushy about having your kid over, you can take them aside and say that you don't feel comfortable having your kids at a house where prescription drugs are left out, but you do run the risk that they'll react badly, forbidding their kids from playing with your kids, and saying nasty things about you.

    What's the playground scoop on these parents? The father of one of my child's classmates has been arrested recently for drug issues, and the parents on the playground had long suspected a problem there. People don't feel safe having their children at that house, but they are happy to invite the child over to their homes.

    Posted by anonymous January 26, 11 07:10 AM
  1. To keep it simple, I'll say that if I were in your situation:

    1. My kids would not go to that house anymore. If the kids want to know why, Barbara's suggestion for dialogue is what I would say, regarding safety. If the parents inquire, I would be direct. You don't owe anyone any explanations, but if asked, an honest answer is probably best here.

    2. I'd still invite the kids to my house and take them places with us.

    3. I would not go to the authorities. After all, many families make choices and take risks that I personally wouldn't - they are not vigilant about car seat rules, they leave matches in kitchen drawers and bleach unlocked under the sink - and those things can be every bit as dangerous to children as drugs or a loaded gun. I know someone whose daughter cut off the tip of her own finger because her Mom left her set of scrapbooking scissors out on the counter. It's hardly the same story as a child getting into accessible prescription drugs, but scary about "what could have happened" nonetheless. Should I report her?

    The LW did not say much about the children beyond that they are nice kids - are they well cared for, clean, fed, do they have what they need for school? Is it a two-parent household?

    Posted by RH January 26, 11 07:56 AM
  1. Prescription drugs being out are a problem. It is delicate to ask people to change the way they do things for your child's sake. We all have problems with the way other households do things, but this is a big one.
    The parents will take it as an accusation, so I would avoid giving an explanation unless they push it. Then you can say, "you may not like my opinion, but..."
    Also, depending on the age of you child, they might enjoy the lack of supervision. They may fight to continue going there to maintain that kind of freedom.

    Posted by lala January 26, 11 08:44 AM
  1. I absolutely agree with Barbara: exit, give thoughtful explanations, and yes, address the issue with the parents as well so that they understand what their behavior is doing to their children's social lives. In the world of drugs, where people get very selfish because of addictions, your addressing this with the parents may or may not make a difference in their current behavior. However, at least you will feel as though morally you did the right thing by communication your concerns to them. And hopefully if they have some sense, they might realize in a moment of clarity that you could also feel morally obligated to notify the school and social services. Perhaps that might jolt them into action, who knows. I'm sorry you've been caught in the middle - it amazes me how some adults can be so irresponsible.

    Posted by nmac8953 January 26, 11 10:01 AM
  1. Depending on the age of the chidren, I think this prescription drug issue is being a little overblown. How old are the kids? If they are 10-12 years old, then they should really know better than to take someone else's medication. I think we don't give our children enough credit. Also, if they are 10-12 years old they could just as easily open the medicine cabinet while alone in the bathroom and have access to the very same medication. Now, if the children are 6 or 7, that's a different story. The fact that the supervising parents may be high is alarming, and I think that's where the attention needs to be directed.

    Posted by Anon January 26, 11 10:26 AM
  1. I agree with a previous poster that a child who is 10-12 should know basically not to take someone elses stuff. They know those pills belong to someone else so why would they take them. As a child I would not have helped my self to food in someone elses house so why would I take their pills? I guess I am out of the loop because I was shocked that most medicine cabinets now come with locks on them. I never in a million years would have gone into our medicine cabinet as a kid. Though I do know that perscription drug abuse is high with teeens so I should not have been so shocked. Also nodding off could be a sign of sleep apnea.

    Posted by Honk January 26, 11 10:51 AM
  1. I hate to say the LW might be over-reacting here, but if she expects that prescription meds should be kept locked up, that seems a little over the top. I think most people keep them in the medicine cabinet or someplace like that.

    Still, it sounds like there is something disquieting going on here and you should definitely trust your instincts and keep your kids out of that house. Better safe than sorry.

    Posted by geocool January 26, 11 11:46 AM
  1. I disagree with the advice to NOT call social services or the school or some authority who can find out what's going on in that house. If a home is not fit for my children to visit for a few hours, it's not fit for someone else's children to actually live there. What if those children were suffering from abuse or neglect and you did nothing to help them? What if they're in a car and mom or dad is falling asleep and gets into an accident? What if there's a fire and mom or dad is too zonked to get everyone out of the house safely? Please follow you gut on this one. If things seem really not right, of course keep you kids out of there and welcome the other children into your house to play, but please go a step further and call either DSS or the school nurse or school psychologist, who can figure out what to do (they will probably call DSS). If it turns out that all is well, no big deal. I have known families involved with DSS and while horror stories are what hit the news, I have found that in the cases of which I have personal knowledge, the social workers were compassionate and fair, helping one family that really needed help and correctly determining that the other report was really just harassment from an ex spouse. It sounds like this family needs either an intervention or a wake-up call. Don't be the person who turns a blind eye to children who are potentially in need of help.

    Posted by Jen January 26, 11 02:46 PM
  1. My kids are 10 and 9, and I haven't kept prescription drugs locked up for at least a couple years now. Lord knows I have enough trouble getting them to take their medicines when they are sick - I'm not too worried about them randomly deciding to take mine. I keep them up high and out of plain sight (no need to test visiting kids' common sense) but not locking up prescription drugs wouldn't even register on my radar as something to worry about.

    Now abusing/acting high? That might give me pause. But again, was this one day when Mom was sleepy, or was this a repeat offense? I've had days when I dozed on the couch while the kids were having a playdate upstairs (post toddler days) because I was just plain tired. Or have you every had one of those days when you desperately needed to take some cold medicine to survive, but it made you a bit out of it? Would you have wanted someone to call DSS on you because you had a cold? Just make sure you are not overreacting to what might have been a mom having a rough day and doing the best she can.

    Posted by BMS January 26, 11 03:59 PM
  1. I have to agree with the previous comment by Jen.

    I grew up in a home with a drug-addicted single mother and everybody was so concerned about not stepping on her toes that they did nothing. As I got older, I started to wonder why nobody thought me important enough to help me. I was put in some awful situations...my mother sent me into an arcade/bar when I was 11 to ask around for heroin, yes, really...and I didn't know how to help myself at that age. I remember knowing something was wrong, that we weren't normal, but I didn't know what to DO about it.

    Between my mother and the characters she had in and out of our apartment, I spent years living in terror.

    Please. If you are in a position to do something...and "something" only needs to be picking up the phone or talking to a school administrator or teacher...do it.

    Posted by Kate January 26, 11 04:22 PM
  1. I would add that after the decision is made, sit down with your kids and brainstorm ways to handle the conversation with their friends. It will eventually come up and can be damaging to their friendship as well as self-esteem. Find ways that are compassionate but honest.

    Posted by jamie January 26, 11 06:36 PM
  1. I'm a family doctor, and I'd like to say that one of the saddest deaths I ever saw was that of a young teenager who died because he took a whole bottle of his mom's medication - out of the medicine cabinet - because his girlfriend dumped him. I warn all my patients with children of any age still at home that all med's, including Tylenol and iron pills, should be kept in a locked box.

    Posted by Doctor Clara January 27, 11 07:29 AM
  1. I'm sorry, but if a teen really wants to commit suicide, locking up all the tylenol is not going to do it. Like a teen couldn't walk into CVS and buy tylenol? Or raid the liquor cabinet? Or heck, borrow one of Dad's razor blades?

    I'm not saying to not take precautions, especially with very young kids. But we have got to, as parents and a society, get out of this mentality that a)every bad thing is preventable and thus b)everything bad is our fault. It takes energy away from dealing with real problems and ties us up in a lot of hand wringing and 'what ifs'.

    Posted by BMS January 27, 11 07:58 AM
  1. It's interesting that EVERY COMMENT here totally glossed over the fact that the parents appear to be stoned when the kids are picked up from the house.

    So, not only are prescription drugs readily accessible to tweens - and mind you, prescription drugs are THE most abused drug of choice in the tween and teen set (yes, even kids raised in your household have probably tried drugs at leaset once, Perfect Parents) - but the parents in question are not generally giving the appearance of being sober enough to maintain due filligence over their RXs...or to maintain appropriate oversight over the kids.

    THAT is what concerns me here. Never mind the risks of leaving the drugs out and at hand...how about the fact that the parents are giving fairly clear indicators of being addicts themselves and not able to appropriately react or respond in the event of an emergency?

    No, LW, I don't think you're overreacting. Honesty would be the best policy if the parents ask why your children aren't allowed over anymore.

    Posted by Phe January 28, 11 10:50 AM
 
14 comments so far...
  1. I like Barbara's approach. However, I don't think it's worth talking to the parents. Just politely decline invitations to their home. If they are pushy about having your kid over, you can take them aside and say that you don't feel comfortable having your kids at a house where prescription drugs are left out, but you do run the risk that they'll react badly, forbidding their kids from playing with your kids, and saying nasty things about you.

    What's the playground scoop on these parents? The father of one of my child's classmates has been arrested recently for drug issues, and the parents on the playground had long suspected a problem there. People don't feel safe having their children at that house, but they are happy to invite the child over to their homes.

    Posted by anonymous January 26, 11 07:10 AM
  1. To keep it simple, I'll say that if I were in your situation:

    1. My kids would not go to that house anymore. If the kids want to know why, Barbara's suggestion for dialogue is what I would say, regarding safety. If the parents inquire, I would be direct. You don't owe anyone any explanations, but if asked, an honest answer is probably best here.

    2. I'd still invite the kids to my house and take them places with us.

    3. I would not go to the authorities. After all, many families make choices and take risks that I personally wouldn't - they are not vigilant about car seat rules, they leave matches in kitchen drawers and bleach unlocked under the sink - and those things can be every bit as dangerous to children as drugs or a loaded gun. I know someone whose daughter cut off the tip of her own finger because her Mom left her set of scrapbooking scissors out on the counter. It's hardly the same story as a child getting into accessible prescription drugs, but scary about "what could have happened" nonetheless. Should I report her?

    The LW did not say much about the children beyond that they are nice kids - are they well cared for, clean, fed, do they have what they need for school? Is it a two-parent household?

    Posted by RH January 26, 11 07:56 AM
  1. Prescription drugs being out are a problem. It is delicate to ask people to change the way they do things for your child's sake. We all have problems with the way other households do things, but this is a big one.
    The parents will take it as an accusation, so I would avoid giving an explanation unless they push it. Then you can say, "you may not like my opinion, but..."
    Also, depending on the age of you child, they might enjoy the lack of supervision. They may fight to continue going there to maintain that kind of freedom.

    Posted by lala January 26, 11 08:44 AM
  1. I absolutely agree with Barbara: exit, give thoughtful explanations, and yes, address the issue with the parents as well so that they understand what their behavior is doing to their children's social lives. In the world of drugs, where people get very selfish because of addictions, your addressing this with the parents may or may not make a difference in their current behavior. However, at least you will feel as though morally you did the right thing by communication your concerns to them. And hopefully if they have some sense, they might realize in a moment of clarity that you could also feel morally obligated to notify the school and social services. Perhaps that might jolt them into action, who knows. I'm sorry you've been caught in the middle - it amazes me how some adults can be so irresponsible.

    Posted by nmac8953 January 26, 11 10:01 AM
  1. Depending on the age of the chidren, I think this prescription drug issue is being a little overblown. How old are the kids? If they are 10-12 years old, then they should really know better than to take someone else's medication. I think we don't give our children enough credit. Also, if they are 10-12 years old they could just as easily open the medicine cabinet while alone in the bathroom and have access to the very same medication. Now, if the children are 6 or 7, that's a different story. The fact that the supervising parents may be high is alarming, and I think that's where the attention needs to be directed.

    Posted by Anon January 26, 11 10:26 AM
  1. I agree with a previous poster that a child who is 10-12 should know basically not to take someone elses stuff. They know those pills belong to someone else so why would they take them. As a child I would not have helped my self to food in someone elses house so why would I take their pills? I guess I am out of the loop because I was shocked that most medicine cabinets now come with locks on them. I never in a million years would have gone into our medicine cabinet as a kid. Though I do know that perscription drug abuse is high with teeens so I should not have been so shocked. Also nodding off could be a sign of sleep apnea.

    Posted by Honk January 26, 11 10:51 AM
  1. I hate to say the LW might be over-reacting here, but if she expects that prescription meds should be kept locked up, that seems a little over the top. I think most people keep them in the medicine cabinet or someplace like that.

    Still, it sounds like there is something disquieting going on here and you should definitely trust your instincts and keep your kids out of that house. Better safe than sorry.

    Posted by geocool January 26, 11 11:46 AM
  1. I disagree with the advice to NOT call social services or the school or some authority who can find out what's going on in that house. If a home is not fit for my children to visit for a few hours, it's not fit for someone else's children to actually live there. What if those children were suffering from abuse or neglect and you did nothing to help them? What if they're in a car and mom or dad is falling asleep and gets into an accident? What if there's a fire and mom or dad is too zonked to get everyone out of the house safely? Please follow you gut on this one. If things seem really not right, of course keep you kids out of there and welcome the other children into your house to play, but please go a step further and call either DSS or the school nurse or school psychologist, who can figure out what to do (they will probably call DSS). If it turns out that all is well, no big deal. I have known families involved with DSS and while horror stories are what hit the news, I have found that in the cases of which I have personal knowledge, the social workers were compassionate and fair, helping one family that really needed help and correctly determining that the other report was really just harassment from an ex spouse. It sounds like this family needs either an intervention or a wake-up call. Don't be the person who turns a blind eye to children who are potentially in need of help.

    Posted by Jen January 26, 11 02:46 PM
  1. My kids are 10 and 9, and I haven't kept prescription drugs locked up for at least a couple years now. Lord knows I have enough trouble getting them to take their medicines when they are sick - I'm not too worried about them randomly deciding to take mine. I keep them up high and out of plain sight (no need to test visiting kids' common sense) but not locking up prescription drugs wouldn't even register on my radar as something to worry about.

    Now abusing/acting high? That might give me pause. But again, was this one day when Mom was sleepy, or was this a repeat offense? I've had days when I dozed on the couch while the kids were having a playdate upstairs (post toddler days) because I was just plain tired. Or have you every had one of those days when you desperately needed to take some cold medicine to survive, but it made you a bit out of it? Would you have wanted someone to call DSS on you because you had a cold? Just make sure you are not overreacting to what might have been a mom having a rough day and doing the best she can.

    Posted by BMS January 26, 11 03:59 PM
  1. I have to agree with the previous comment by Jen.

    I grew up in a home with a drug-addicted single mother and everybody was so concerned about not stepping on her toes that they did nothing. As I got older, I started to wonder why nobody thought me important enough to help me. I was put in some awful situations...my mother sent me into an arcade/bar when I was 11 to ask around for heroin, yes, really...and I didn't know how to help myself at that age. I remember knowing something was wrong, that we weren't normal, but I didn't know what to DO about it.

    Between my mother and the characters she had in and out of our apartment, I spent years living in terror.

    Please. If you are in a position to do something...and "something" only needs to be picking up the phone or talking to a school administrator or teacher...do it.

    Posted by Kate January 26, 11 04:22 PM
  1. I would add that after the decision is made, sit down with your kids and brainstorm ways to handle the conversation with their friends. It will eventually come up and can be damaging to their friendship as well as self-esteem. Find ways that are compassionate but honest.

    Posted by jamie January 26, 11 06:36 PM
  1. I'm a family doctor, and I'd like to say that one of the saddest deaths I ever saw was that of a young teenager who died because he took a whole bottle of his mom's medication - out of the medicine cabinet - because his girlfriend dumped him. I warn all my patients with children of any age still at home that all med's, including Tylenol and iron pills, should be kept in a locked box.

    Posted by Doctor Clara January 27, 11 07:29 AM
  1. I'm sorry, but if a teen really wants to commit suicide, locking up all the tylenol is not going to do it. Like a teen couldn't walk into CVS and buy tylenol? Or raid the liquor cabinet? Or heck, borrow one of Dad's razor blades?

    I'm not saying to not take precautions, especially with very young kids. But we have got to, as parents and a society, get out of this mentality that a)every bad thing is preventable and thus b)everything bad is our fault. It takes energy away from dealing with real problems and ties us up in a lot of hand wringing and 'what ifs'.

    Posted by BMS January 27, 11 07:58 AM
  1. It's interesting that EVERY COMMENT here totally glossed over the fact that the parents appear to be stoned when the kids are picked up from the house.

    So, not only are prescription drugs readily accessible to tweens - and mind you, prescription drugs are THE most abused drug of choice in the tween and teen set (yes, even kids raised in your household have probably tried drugs at leaset once, Perfect Parents) - but the parents in question are not generally giving the appearance of being sober enough to maintain due filligence over their RXs...or to maintain appropriate oversight over the kids.

    THAT is what concerns me here. Never mind the risks of leaving the drugs out and at hand...how about the fact that the parents are giving fairly clear indicators of being addicts themselves and not able to appropriately react or respond in the event of an emergency?

    No, LW, I don't think you're overreacting. Honesty would be the best policy if the parents ask why your children aren't allowed over anymore.

    Posted by Phe January 28, 11 10:50 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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