by Jean Walbridge
Q: What is the right thing to do when you find a wadded-up note (that you think probably belongs to your teen) lying on the top of the toilet in the bathroom?
A: What would you want your teenager to do if he/she found same note on the kitchen counter, and it was yours? Would you not want him or her to let people in the house know that s/he had found a note, and where, and give the rightful owner of the note the opportunity to get it back, unopened?
Q: What is the right thing to do if you hear via the parental grapevine that some kids may be planning a "prison break" for Friday night?
A: Discuss what you've heard with your teen, right? Okay, but what if you come by this information by "happening" to look at an e-mail message she's saved? Now it's not so easy to approach her, is it--now, though you may feel you have the goods on her, she also will know that she has the goods on you. And, of course, in either scenario, she can deny that she was planning to be involved, and there's not much you can do about that!
"I can both understand and appreciate her anger and hurt at us 'invading her privacy,' " write the parents of a 14-year-old after they have snooped on her, "but what options do we have? What is a parent supposed to do? Do we wait and hope that it all turns out OK and that she comes out on the other side of adolescence fine? Where can a parent draw the line on what is private and what isn't when it comes to the health and well being of their child?"
The concern and boundary confusion evident in these parents' query are echoed by many others. In fact, I get a letter about once a week from a parent asking how to approach an adolescent whose privacy has just been invaded by the parent.
In almost every such case, the parent wants to know how to handle the "content" he or she has found -- the implied or confessed actions or plans laid out in the note, letter, or e-mail, or the implications for behavior of a possession found under the bed, in the book bag, in the pockets of the dirty jeans. Usually the parents will say they have "stumbled upon" or "accidentally discovered" the material that has them worrying.
Rarely will parents acknowledge plainly, as in fact the parents quoted above did do, that they have intentionally ignored the boundary of privacy of personal materials that most parents admit applies to their teenage children as to themselves.
And, as I've stated, the focus of the letters is always on "what to do about" such-and-so:
In these days of mass shootings by pubescent boys who live in the suburbs all across this land, parents may well feel concerned about the "secret doings" of their progeny. Spying, however, is no solution to parents' anxiety or suspicion that their son or daughter may be up to no good.
I can easily think of at least four reasons why snooping on your teens doesn't work:
Besides which, you never know what to do with the information you've "come across"! As one parent put it, "I wish I didn't know what I know."
As our children grow through adolescence, they *need* to feel that they are creating their own world, that parents no longer know everything they do, everything they say, everything they feel or plan to do or say or feel. True, they are also ambivalent about parents' no longer controlling their whole world: it used to be so easy! Just look to Mom and Dad to know what was right and wrong, what you should do or not do. Now, they have to decide their own values, to learn to control their own behavior, to make many of their own choices -- and to take the consequences.
Because they are ambivalent, they may leave stuff around that, if inspected, could implicate them, could reveal their private world. Leaving a trail is one way of expressing their wish that you DID still control them. But if this wish is genuine, it is also unconscious, like much of their fear, and a parent's acting upon it is seldom in the teen's best interests.
Whether he likes it or not, in fact your teen IS in control of his own life now, much more so than he used to be, much more so than he COULD have been, years ago. Like it or not, your teen is no longer a child! She is allowed to communicate with her friends and others privately, to make plans you don't know about, to have feelings and thoughts she doesn't share. THIS IS PART OF GROWING UP.
Does that mean your adolescent is on her own? Not at all. It does mean that she is, though, increasingly on her own, or ought to be: that as she demonstrates the ability to govern her life, she is given the responsibility to do so, increasingly. AND, that you give him additional freedoms as he grows SO THAT he can learn how to govern his life.
So what about the boys who were finding out how to build bombs and collecting the instructions in their bedrooms? Should their parents have been inspecting their rooms? I don't think so. These boys were giving plentiful signs that they were in trouble inside -- signs that went unheeded.
"Do we wait and hope that it all turns out OK and that she comes out on the other side of adolescence fine?," ask the parents quoted above, as if their only option to invading their teen's privacy were simply to be passive in relation to their daughter.
No, I answer, you don't "just wait and hope." There are a great many things parents can and *must* do to help assure their children's progress through adolescence to a successful adulthood. Here are some of them:
Do you have to pay attention to your teen? Yes. Do you have to invade his privacy to be a good parent? No. [There are many Questions and Answers stored in the Archives on each of the bullet points. To find them, type your topic word in the Search box and click Search.]
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This page updated 11/16/2001. Copyright ©Parenting Adolescents, all rights reserved.