Family Life

How Far Should You Go To Respect Your Teen’s Privacy

By Gina Roberts-Grey

Locking doors, whispering with friends, and mysteriously passing through the house—actions similar to that of an undercover operative and also commonly attributed to teenagers wanting to preserve their privacy. Teens and tweens will go to great lengths to protect their privacy, and many teenagers expect their parents to strictly respect their privacy.

While exhibiting a healthy amount of mutual respect for each other’s privacy is an important skill to nurture, many parents find themselves questioning how much teen privacy is too much? Should you snoop in your teen or tween’s room when putting laundry away? What if you find a letter in the pocket of her jeans in the wash? Is it wrong to check your teen’s email messages or instant messenger log?

Many parents believe ‘snooping,’ ‘spying,’ or not respecting their teen’s privacy is the only way to find out about their child’s life. But Todd Atkins, Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice, said it is possible for parents to find out about their child’s life while still allowing them a “considered privacy.” This means parents need to consider the child’s age and responsibility level before determining the level of privacy they deserve. 

The effects of respect

Respecting your child’s privacy lets your teen know you are beginning to accept him or her as a burgeoning adult as well as your child. A teen who feels his privacy is respected might begin to loosen the tight hold he has on preserving his privacy. “After my daughters and I established the routine that I would knock before entering their rooms they started leaving the doors open and spending more time in other rooms of the house. They wanted to have some control over their lives and for me to understand they are individuals,” shares mother of two teens, Louisa Pease. 

Respecting a teen’s privacy can also backfire. Some teens view your respect of their privacy as permission to retreat into their own world. “My son withdrew from the family and interpreted our respect for his privacy as a license to do whatever he wanted,” said mother Suzette Madden.   

Both Pease and Madden questioned how much privacy their teens needed and deserved. 

Dr. Christine Belaire, Licensed professional Counselor and Marriage Family Therapist, agrees that teens should have a level of privacy and a space of their own. However, teens are not adults and cannot handle complete autonomy. “Parents are responsible for teaching teens to handle increased responsibility by giving age appropriate levels of privacy and responsibility; however, parents should still be checking up on teens and monitoring their behavior.”

It is equally important to determine how much privacy you are comfortable with. If you’re not comfortable with the established boundaries, you’ll be less inclined to respect them. 

“Although I allow my daughter to keep her door closed when she has her friends over, she isn’t allowed to have boys in her room at all,” said Pease. Atkins said he often talks about teens needing a “private space” with families. For example, a parent should knock on the door first before entering,” he said. “I think it’s a graduated process of earning that right to privacy.”  

Defining respect

How do you define respect? Upon self-examination, some parents find they do not have clear boundaries for demonstrating and earning respect. For example, while you want your teen to respect your privacy and not rummage through your purse or bedroom, it can be tough to resist the temptation to snoop through her own belongings. 

Interestingly, the level of respect you are willing to extend is often based on the level of trust you have in your teen or tween’s actions and decisions. If you’re wondering whether or not to respect your teen’s high level of privacy, ask yourself if his secrecy is potentially harmful or irritating.  

“If a parent’s only method of finding out information is from snooping, then something is missing in the parent-child relationship.” adds Belaire. “That parent should focus on improving the relationship before addressing other less important issues.”

Does your teen want to watch his favorite television show in the privacy of his own room or is he looking for opportunities to visit explicit web sites? Does your daughter want to gush to her friend about a boy in her class behind a closed bedroom door or experiment with drugs and alcohol? If you suspect your child is involved in a dangerous activity or has developed a harmful habit, respecting his privacy may need to take a back seat to preserving his health and safety.  

Children thrive and flourish on mutual respect. “But they have to earn a little bit of trust to get a little bit of trust,” Atkins said. “What would help is to talk about it—talk about privacy expectations. There should always be a baseline level of privacy that they should expect.” 

Belaire reminds parents that “the expectation should be that parents have usernames and passwords to all technology and that they are periodically checking up on content.” The internet is not private, and teens are not equipped without supervision to handle the potential hazards that may occur.” 

Talk with your teen to explain your concerns for his or her safety and well-being, your expectations for mutual respect, and his repercussions if your trust is broken.  

Respect is everywhere

You can demonstrate your respect for your teen’s privacy in a variety of ways. Resisting the urge to ask for several details about a social function or knocking before entering his room are small steps to ease parents into showing you’re willing to respect his privacy.  

Clear and consistent communication also significantly impacts respect.  

“It’s absolutely important for parents to talk to their teens,” Atkins said. “Probably the most important thing they can do is become involved in their teens life. You want to be involved to the extent that you can, but you also want to promote independence and let them grow on their own.”

In addition to talking with your child, the way you talk him is another opportunity to teach respect. The tone of your voice shows your respect because sometimes the words you choose to convey your point are more impacting than the point itself.  

If you need to discuss concerns regarding your child’s secrecy, select a neutral location (i.e., living room sofa, or kitchen table) to discuss the situation. Choose a place where everyone is comfortable to freely express themselves and always approach a conversation from a mutually respectful point of view.

According to Belaire, “open communication, spending time with your teen and listening are the best ways to stay in contact with teens. In a healthy relationship, teens should know that parents are paying attention and checking up on them to show they care about them and want them to learn responsibility. If a situation occurs, in which you as a parent feel the need to investigate, by all means ask and look. You can check on teens in a way that demonstrates love and respect to them and models the behavior you are teaching.” 

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