Teen privacy and snooping

How much privacy should parents give their teens and when is it appropriate to snoop?

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“I remember my own teen years,” says Michele Eaton,* mother of 14-year-old Callie and 12-year-old David. “It was so important to me to have my own thoughts and ideas, and live my own life without being judged and criticized. Having privacy mattered a lot to me.”

But what seems black and white when you’re a teenager isn’t quite as simple when you’re the parent of one. Eaton says that she hasn’t quite figured out how to handle privacy with her own kids — and that’s partly because they have very different personalities. “Callie is very open with me and is constantly checking in with me, so I don’t worry much about her,” she says. “But David is far more secretive and reserved. When he was younger, he got involved with some sexual play with an older child, and he didn’t tell me about it. I only found out because he told Callie. So I’m less confident that he’d tell me if there were something to be concerned about.”

It’s a tricky question. How much privacy should parents give their teens, and when is it appropriate to snoop a little to make sure things are OK? “Honouring a child’s need for privacy while still being the adult in charge can be a tricky thing for parents,” says Dulcie Gretton, a parenting coach in Calgary. “In early adolescence, we need to remain a physical presence in our children’s lives, making sure we know what they are doing, where and with whom. We can communicate to our teens: ‘This is my responsibility and I intend to fulfill it.’” Once that’s understood, Gretton says parents can negotiate with their teens on the areas of privacy and responsibility that are appropriate. As Eaton has found, this will be different with each child, depending on maturity and previous track record.

* Names changed by request
Gretton doesn’t consider it snooping to put what she calls “checks and balances” in place. “This may include things like checking out their history on the computer, reviewing cellphone use or verifying whereabouts. We do these things in a spirit of caring concern,” she says. It’s not snooping, Gretton adds, because you’ve let your child know that you’ll be doing these things. “Most children are secretly relieved and reassured by a parent’s vigilance. It communicates that they are loved and valued.”

Eaton’s ex-husband, who shares custody of Callie and David, has agreed with her to take on the “checking up” aspect of parenting when it comes to computer use. “He’s insisted on having their passwords and has let them know that he will check up,” says Eaton. “I think that knowing a parent can and might check up on him is enough to remind David — who is the one I worry about — that he needs to be careful online.”

But what about when parents are concerned that a child might be in trouble? Perhaps you think she’s been shoplifting or is smoking. Is a little judicious snooping OK then — before they have a chance to hide the evidence? Gretton says no. “Snooping jeopardizes trust and undermines your parenting integrity. It communicates distrust and a lack of respect — the opposite of what we want to be modelling. It can turn your relationship into an unhealthy game of hide-and-seek.”

Gretton points out that if you suspect that your child has a problem or is experimenting with risky behaviour, something has alerted you to this possibility. “The best next step would be to express your concern directly to your child,” she says. Tell him what you’ve noticed and what you are concerned about. You may get an honest response, or you may get denial, defiance or silence. Let your child know that you are willing to wait until he’s ready to talk.” The point is, you don’t need to snoop to start the conversation.

There is value in giving teens privacy as well. Gretton comments that this is how teens learn to take greater responsibility for themselves and to experience the outcomes of their decisions. She adds: “Remember, some poor decisions have to be made on the way to making better decisions. Providing support and loving limits will look and feel very different as our children mature.”

“For me, it’s about hitting the balance between trust and guidance,” says Eaton. “I know Callie, in particular, cares a lot about what I think, and I try to encourage her to think for herself, to do what feels right for her. She needs some privacy to be able to try out those options. It’s really just a few years until Callie will be out on her own, and I want her to feel confident that she can make good decisions.”

The accidental snoop

There’s an old saying that eavesdroppers will always hear bad things about themselves. Perhaps the same karmic rule applies to snooping — even when it’s done accidentally. Eaton once saw her 14-year-old daughter Callie’s diary left open, and couldn’t resist the urge to read just a few lines. What she read was an emotional outpouring of Callie’s angry feelings towards her mother. “She was pretty mad at me, and it was a bit hard to read,” says Eaton. “I never told her that I’d seen it.” Now she just averts her eyes if the diary happens to be lying around.