As they grow older, teens should and must separate from their parents to begin the process of becoming healthy adults, which means that they should and must have increased responsibility, more opportunity, and increased privacy. Although this is an important process, teens are also notorious for making poor choices and sometimes dangerous decisions. That means parents are stuck between a rock and a hard place: do they respect their child’s privacy or do they “snoop” to make sure their child is safe?
How do I keep my teen safe if I don’t know what he or she is doing?
Even though you can’t control everything, parents do play an important role in their teen’s decisions. Research has proven that teens with strong ties to their parents are less likely to engage in a variety of risky behaviors. For example, kids who learn a lot about the risks from their parents are up to 50% less likely to use drugs.
Parents affect their teen’s choices all the time as they role model behavior and communicate what’s important to them. It’s essential that parents are conscious and deliberate about the values they are instilling in their children. A father who smokes is not an effective role model for refusing drug abuse. A mother who lies to others is not going to rear honest children.
Open communication, where parents are constantly using everyday events to talk about important issues, is more effective than sitting down with your teen for the scary and dreaded “drug talk” or “sex talk.” For example, discuss how the character in the movie you saw together handled that awkward sexual encounter. After a visit with your chain-smoking uncle, talk about your disapproval of using drugs. These are effective ways of shaping and molding your teen’s behavior.
What should I do if I’m worried about my teen’s behavior?
If you are concerned about your child’s behavior, there probably is something going on. Parents have a choice when they think something is going on in their child’s life: they can ignore it, they can overreact, or they can try to collaborate with their child.
There are plenty of reasons parents may be tempted to ignore signs of their teen engaging in risky behaviors. Many parents feel they have failed as a parent if their child is using drugs, having sex, or doing something illegal. Others are afraid of the emotional outbursts and conflict if they confront their child with their concerns. But hiding your head in the sand is not an effective parenting strategy. For example, by the time a parent is seeing signs of teen drug abuse, there is a strong possibility that not only is the child using, but he’s losing control of the ability to hide it. Addiction is around the corner.
On the other extreme, many parents resort to major detective work, determined to find the “cause.” Even if you are correct that something is going on in your child’s life, it may not be what you expect. Rather than the risky behavior you fear, your child might be depressed, or struggling in school, or coming to terms with homosexuality. As addressed above, snooping will kill the trust you have with your child, and jumping to conclusions will only make your teen angry.
The best type of detective work is to talk to your child. No matter what is going on, it’s best to find out directly from your child, if possible, and talking will be a big part of helping your child through it. Ultimately, your teen should feel that you are on their side, which they will not feel if you confront them with some “evidence” you have pilfered from their room while they were out or if you simply ignore the signs they are giving you. Whatever you do or say, letting your child know he or she can lean on you should be a big part of the message.
Isn’t it just easier for me to search through my kid’s stuff to make sure they’re not doing anything bad?
Keep in mind that going through your teen’s room carries its own risks. Your teen will use your snooping to deflect your criticism and will more likely be stuck in a state of defiance rather than try to work through the issue at hand. As a parent, your authority is undermined when you have not come by your information honestly, and you have effectively admitted that your child cannot trust you. Snooping notifies your teen that he or she should act with greater discretion and keep things from you. Invading their privacy also erodes their respect for you and hurts your relationship, which are your two best means of influencing their behavior.
Motives are an important element of “checking on” your teen. If you are simply curious about your teen’s life or you are angry with your teen, snooping is a very bad idea. This will break down trust and deteriorate your relationship. Snooping for these reasons is off-limits to parents.
There are times when it’s appropriate for parents to search their teen’s things, and that is when you believe your child is in danger and he/she isn’t communicating with you. If you believe your teen is doing something unsafe or risky to their health – taking drugs, getting involved in a crime, talking to an older man on the computer – and he/she won’t open up to you through talking, then you should absolutely go through his/her things.
Am I not allowed in their room?
It is perfectly reasonable for parents to occasionally be in and out of a teen’s room. Your child cannot lock you out of his or her room claiming privacy. To help establish trust and respectful expectations, talk about privacy in your home before it becomes an issue. Be sure to openly communicate what is acceptable and think through it from your own point of view when you’re determining the ground rules. For example, you probably wouldn’t mind your teen walking into your bedroom when the door is open, but you would expect that he or she would not open your drawers, and if the door is closed, you would expect your teen to knock before entering. Those same expectations should apply to you when the roles are reversed.
Teens want to be independent and trusted, and privacy is one of the ways they obtain those feelings from their parents. Granting privacy builds a teen’s self-confidence. Balancing that privacy with knowing what your teen is doing is a fine line that parents must constantly manage. It’s not easy, but building a close, trusting relationship helps significantly.