Privacy and Snooping

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“I remember my own teen years,” says Michelle Paddy mother of 14-year-old Susan and 12-year-old Steve. “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. Paddy 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. “Susan is very open with me and is constantly checking in with me, so I don’t worry much about her” she says. “But Steve 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 Susan. So I’m less confident that he’d tell me if there was 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? “Honoring 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 Paddy has found, this will be different with each child, depending on maturity and previous track record.

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 cell phone 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.”

Paddy’s ex-husband, who shares custody of Susan and Steve, 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 Paddy. “I think that knowing a parent can and might check up on him is enough to remind Steve 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 she has 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 modeling. It can turn your relationship into an unhealthy game of hide-and-seek.”

There is value in giving teens privacy as well. Gretton comments that this is how teens learn to take greater responsibility for them 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 Paddy. “I know Susan, in particular, cares a lot about what I think, and I try to encourage her to think for her, 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 Susan will be out on her own, and I want her to feel confident that she can make good decisions.”

By: Francis David