Finding a balance between granting a teenager the privacy they desire at home and remaining connected to their relationships, activities, and emotions is a challenge most parents struggle with as their children navigate the road to young adulthood. Lisa Damour says the yearning for privacy in adolescence occurs “just when their lives are expanding to include a range of risky new opportunities”:

Whether or not they have something worrisome to hide, normally developing tweens often start to shut their bedroom doors and become cagey about their time online. And when teenagers act aloof, their parents often feel tempted, if not duty bound, to secretly search bedrooms and surreptitiously scan online activity to ensure that their child isn’t engaged with drugs, drinking or digital misdeeds.

 

Damour, a practicing psychologist, empathizes with parents’ need to know while at the same time strongly advising them against snooping on their teenagers. One reason is that snooping may not be necessary:

Helpfully, recent research calls into question the utility of snooping and suggests better approaches for parents who are concerned that something might be amiss.

Adults who suspect their adolescent is up to something may feel compelled to cross privacy boundaries, but research on Dutch families found that the teenagers of prying parents weren’t misbehaving any more than those whose parents didn’t snoop. Notably, the same study instead linked parents’ snooping to their worries about the strength of their relationship with their teenager. According to Skyler Hawk, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, “the act of snooping seems to say more about what the parents are feeling than what their kids are doing.”

If teenagers suspect nosy parents, that may make the situation worse, shutting down important communication lines between them:

For parents who find themselves fretting about their connection to their teenagers, a new study in the Journal of Adolescence suggests that snooping is unlikely to make things better. A survey of 455 adolescents found that teenagers who believed their parents had secretly listened in on their conversations or searched through their possessions without permission shared less information with their folks than teenagers who felt their parents respected appropriate boundaries. This result lines up with another study finding that parental snooping may trigger or perpetuate a cycle in which adolescents become more and more furtive at home.

“When parents engage in behaviors that teenagers see as privacy invasions,” Dr. Hawk said, “it backfires because parents end up knowing less.”

Staying closely involved in children’s lives as they grow and develop into independent adults should not be negotiable. That’s the role of being a parent. Too often, parents are the ones who step back, away from conflict with their teenagers. Instead, says Damour, parents need to step up, lean in, and start talking more to their kids:

The prevailing wisdom suggests a straightforward solution: Start by asking. Though teenagers are usually tight-lipped about topics they deem personal, such as how they spend their free time or allowance, research on parent-adolescent communication shows that teenagers believe their parents do have the right to know about choices that might be unhealthy or unsafe, such as smoking or drinking.

Ultimately, privacy is something that should be earned rather than simply expected. It’s simply a matter of trust — and that works both ways:

The impulse to snoop, like every other questionable parenting choice, almost always comes from a loving and protective place. Rather than giving into it too quickly, though, we might treat the urge to spy as a reminder to reflect on where we stand with our teenagers. Do we trust them, and do they trust us? If not, what steps could we take to arrive at a heartfelt yes?

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