teenage girl looks over the top of her diary intensely

Privacy Vs Parenting: All-Out War Isn't The Answer

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you’re concerned about your teenager, but not sure how far you should go in monitoring their actions?

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk and controversy about the web TV series 13 Reasons Why, a very graphic show about a teenage suicide. Without going too much into the series, it’s certainly highlighted the fears many parents have about what their teenagers may be concealing from them.

As a child moves into adolescence, they can start to become very protective of their privacy, and to some extent that’s okay. None of us would want somebody snooping through our things or reading our diary.  

The problem is that a parent isn’t just 'anyone'. A bedroom isn’t always off-limits if certain behaviour is happening, and a social media account is definitely not a private diary, no matter how much your children may tell you that it is! (It’s not called social media for nothing. If your child were publishing a local newspaper using a printing press in your basement, you’d certainly want to be able to read it!)

On the other hand, nothing is more certain to set up conflict than marching in and demanding to see whatever you want.

So what’s a parent to do?

It’s a question we deal with all the time. Interestingly, some parents seem to be so afraid of upsetting their teenager that they pretty much allow them to do whatever they like, in real-life and online. 

Others are reluctant to adopt what they see as new-fangled ideas about how much input teenagers should have in decision-making. These parents want to take a more 'old-school' approach:

“The child lives under my roof and so what I say goes – my house, my rules”.

“I bought the computer/I pay for the phone, so I have the right to see everything on it”.

While these methods may be easier or emotionally satisfying for the parent in the short term, for a teenager already testing the boundaries they’re unlikely to be effective in changing the teen’s behaviour or keeping them out of trouble.

WHERE DO YOU SIT?

First of all, you may not have thought about what your instinctive reaction might be in this kind of situation.

  • Do you have an approach that sounds like: “Well, it’s their room or their phone or their Facebook or Instagram or whatever, and I should just stay out of it”? (You may also see yourself as the ultra-cool mum or dad who doesn’t want to seem like they’re not up with the latest.)
  • Or do you feel more like: “Well, everything belongs to me and I have the right to look at anything I want”? (And perhaps you’re also a bit curious – What’s the latest schoolyard gossip? What are my child’s innermost thoughts?)
  • Or are you somewhere in the middle, along the lines of: “My child’s growing up and has the right to some privacy – for example, they don’t have to tell me if they’ve got a crush on someone, or they have a private journal that’s for their eyes only – but it’s still my responsibility to supervise and pay attention to what’s happening. And if I suspect something bad or negative is happening, then I DO have the right to check on that, and we’ll talk it through as well”.

Clearly, this last one is what is going to get you further in the long run, but it may not be the one that comes instantly to mind (unless you’ve already done a parenting program)!

Part of this means being transparent with the teen and saying something to them along lines of “I’m getting the feeling there’s something is going on, so we need to talk. There’s a balance between giving you your privacy and me meeting my responsibility to check something out if I’m concerned. So how are we going to do that?”

SOME OTHER FACTORS TO THINK ABOUT

A lot depends on the situation. For example, are you worried your child is being bullied, bullying someone else, self-harming, using drugs, sexting or receiving unwanted texts, or something else? Some other things to consider are:

  • Have you ever broached these topics before with your child, or is this going to be breaking new ground?
  • Has anything happened, or are you just getting in ahead of time and setting up some rules and expectations?
  • Had you previously set some rules or boundaries that your child was fully aware of, and those have been broken; or did they do something they shouldn’t have without being fully aware that it was the wrong thing to do?

BRINGING THEM INTO THE CONVERSATION (INSTEAD OF TALKING 'AT' THEM)

In a recent example I was involved in, where there’d been a problem on social media, the parent’s approach went something like this: “Let me make the decisions about what should happen here. It’s my right as a parent.”

My role was to coach her to try something different. We talked about the idea of bringing the child into a discussion, first, before she did anything else. There are a number of good reasons to make your initial approach like this, because it means that:

  • You can get the child’s or teenager’s view of the situation and understand more about your child and how they’re thinking.
  • You can ask them how they’re feeling, and since teenagers tend to feel things in a very deep way, you can potentially help them name and learn to deal with some strong emotions such as guilt, embarrassment, fear, and anger, in an appropriate way.
  • You can talk to them directly about what THEY think should happen, and give them the chance to respond in a mature way. So, if they’ve done something wrong, you could say something along the lines of: “Here’s what the rules were, and here’s what you did. So even though it’s painful for you emotionally, and I recognise that, what do you think is a fair and appropriate consequence?”

What you’re doing, as I’ve talked about previously and is an important principle of Triple P, is you’re looking at a problem situation not from either a “too-hard basket” or “my way or the highway” perspective. You’re now looking at it from the point of view of strengthening the relationship between you and your child, while also building skills.

Technology brings plenty of opportunities for teenagers to keep things from their parents in ways we didn’t have to grapple with in previous generations. But some things aren’t so different. It’s always been part of growing up to learn the difference between what is okay to keep to yourself, and when you need to tell someone else.

While navigating the teenage years can really test the skills and patience of everybody, finding the right balance between privacy and parental responsibility and keeping the lines of communication open will pay off in the long run.

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