Parenting Adolescents



 On Respecting A Teen's Privacy
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:

  • Ronnie's implied drug use (rolling papers found in his backpack),
  • Sarah's implied sexual activity (note to a boyfriend picked up off the floor of her room),
  • Mariah's confessed plan to sneak out of the house Friday night (an e-mail letter 'accidentally' discovered on the monitor).

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:

  1. They know it's wrong and will use your wrongdoing to deflect criticism of their alleged, implied, or confessed behaviors. As a parent, your authority is undermined when you have not come by your information honestly.

  2. By admitting that you have invaded their privacy (and there is no other way to confront with them the new information ), you serve them with due notice that they can no longer trust you. From now on, they may take care not to leave anything around that you can pick up, may act with greater discretion -- in other words, they may feel notified that they have to 'go underground' even more than they have in the past, in terms of keeping things from you.

  3. Your invading their privacy weakens their respect for you, their relationship with you -- and these are about the only things you have to use, in attempting to influence their behavior.

  4. You can't do it! Just think about all the ways in which secret messages and activities can be planned, communicated, and carried out--if your teen really wants to! There is NO hope for policing a teenager short of tying him/her to a chair.

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:

  • Set an example of moral behavior--what you do speaks louder than what you say. Part of this would be not invading your teen's privacy.

  • Set limits with enforceable consequences in areas that seem to you to be a major threat to your teen's wellbeing and/or your sanity. You can establish a rule, if you have reason for concern about drug/alcohol use, that it's not okay for your teen to use drugs or alcohol, and that IF YOU CATCH HIM/HER, there will be consequences. (But "catching her" does not mean snooping for evidence.)

  • Be there at times your teen is there, but let your teen take the initiative in pursuing contact with you most of the time. Just your being in the house, even if he doesn't come near you or talk to you, is meaningful and reassuring to your teen. He wants to feel in control of his emotional comings and goings vis-a-vis his relationship with you: he needs you more or less "on tap."

  • If your teen does seek contact, LISTEN far more than advise. Keep telling her, if she asks for advice, that you have confidence in HER to figure out what she should do.

  • Ask your teen if you can talk with him if you're worried about a particular area. If your teen will tolerate that, then LISTEN more than talk. Your purpose is to let your teen know that you are INTERESTED in how he feels and thinks, that you RESPECT him.

  • Support your teen's efforts to become independent and to establish her own identity by gradually allowing your teen more freedoms than when she was younger, while setting limits and enforcing consequences when she steps over the line.

  • Tell your teen often that you love him a lot, and express your confidence in his ability to figure out how to grow up into a worthwhile, contributing member of society.

  • Praise your teen's achievements, but let them be her own -- not the fulfillment of YOUR ideal for her. Come to your teen's activities if she invites you, and be there for your teen when her dependency needs arise, then back off again so she doesn't feel you're trying to "hold onto" her and keep her small.

  • Finally, if you think or fear your teen is in a lot of pain or is giving evidence that he is having a lot of trouble coping with life -- failing in school, exceeding all the limits, has no friends, sleeping all the time, says he's miserable repeatedly and over a long duration -- try to get some professional help for him or, if he refuses, get some professional advice for YOURSELVES. Show your teen that, when in trouble, the strong thing to do is to ask for help.

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.]

See also articles on Trust, Lying.

Copyrighted © Parenting Adolescents; all rights reserved. 

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This page may be printed out for personal use. For the right to distribute or quote on a web site or in other media, contact Jean Walbridge.


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This page updated 11/16/2001. Copyright ©Parenting Adolescents, all rights reserved.











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