Teens and Privacy: Should I "spy" on my child? what you need to know (2023)

Parents often wonder how much privacy their kids need and ask me if it's okay to hurt them. I personally believe that there should be a direct correlation between the level of responsibility, consistency and honesty children show and the level of privacy they are allowed to have.

But before we get to the topic of spying on your child, I want to talk a little bit about our children and their need for privacy as they grow up.

Young children and privacy

When a child is small, there is practically no separation. Think about it, children are usually held by their parents or caregivers for significant portions of the day. There's even a popular parenting philosophy called "attachment parenting," which is just a fancy term for what's been normal for thousands of years.

But as a child develops and ages, a natural and healthy breakup begins. The day comes when your child goes into the bathroom and shuts the door because they want their privacy and are embarrassed when someone walks in.

This division is a natural part of human relationships, and as teenagers get older, the dividing lines begin to form and become clearer.

Adolescents and the need to separate

Adolescents need to separate and individualize.individualizationis a developmental process that takes place when children want to have their own lives, and adolescence is really about preparing them for that.

You should know that part of this process involves forming boundaries. To put it simply, boundaries are where your child stops and you begin.

Parents and children often argue about where the lines are drawn, but your child's need for separation is very important. That's why I think it's important for children to have privacy. They should have a room they can walk into and just close the door. Even if they share a room with siblings, I think every child should have a place where they can have “me time” and that is respected by the family.

By the way, I understand that many parents go to their children's rooms to tidy up, pick up dirty clothes and tidy up. These are things we expect of our teenagers, even if they don't often do it as often as we would like. I don't call that "spying" - I call doing what parents do.

I think the term "spying" should be reserved when parents start going through their kids' closets and drawers, going through their phones, going through their backpack and bags, and other activities of this nature.

Also, I would like to point out that I hesitate to use the word "espionage" because it has a negative, sneaky connotation. But it's a word that parents understand and use when we're talking about going through our kids' belongings, so I decided to use that characterization here.


If you have a teen who is accountable, respects her curfew, where and with whom she said she would be, and is generally trustworthy and honest, then I suggest you stay out of her room. She has earned your trust. And I think you should tell her that too. You can say something like:

"I won't invade your privacy because you're doing so well. I have no reason not to trust you."

That way she knows she will be rewarded for her behavior. In short, your lack of interference in her personal space is a direct result of her actions.

(Video) Why you should be spying on your kids | Richard Wistocki | TEDxNaperville

Why I think you shouldn't spy on your kids without good reason? A lot of parents do it, and I'm not saying it's wrong. But in my opinion it does not promote independence and individuation.

We want to raise a young adult who can make independent decisions and lead a life of his own. Remember, one of the things teenagers try to do during puberty is individuality. Having your own space is part of living your own life.

So when you spy on your otherwise responsible child, you send the message, "I don't trust you, even if you haven't done anything wrong."

Spying on Your Child: When the Game Changes

Let me be clear: I think the whole game changes when you discover something incriminating or when you have a very real suspicion about your child's risky activities.

Many parents will ask me in this situation whether they have the "right" to look into their child's room. To be honest, I don't like talking about rights. The word is just too overused in our culture. But here's the deal: I believe that anyone whose name is on the mortgage has the right to look anywhere in their home.

I think that's your right because you own the house. More importantly, you have a responsibility to protect your children from themselves, even if they don't want that protection.

Instead of talking about rights, I prefer to talk about responsibility, accountability and duties. I think as soon as something arouses your suspicion and it's real - if you think your teen is using drugs, drinking or engaging in some other risky behavior - you have an obligation and a responsibility to your child to check their room.

An empty beer can is reason enough. If you find alcohol or drugs or pills I think you need to look around because your responsibility is to try to protect your child from himself. And to do that, you need knowledge.

Remember knowledge is power. When I say power, I don't mean hitting something with a hammer. I mean the power of knowledge when you suddenly understand what's going on. The power you get when your eyes finally open and you see something clearly.

Phone, computer and social media monitoring

Some parents actively monitor their child's phone, computer, messaging apps, emails, and internet browsing history. Parents with the know-how may be able to see their child's entire private life.

I'm not necessarily proposing that to you now, but I see it as fair. Remember, it's not like we as parents have to respect all kinds of privacy for our kids while our kids can do whatever they want. You cannot have two sets of values. It's not like "I have to be good and you can do whatever you want."

You can tell your child:

"If you fail to fulfill your responsibility to take care of yourself and stay safe, I will do whatever is necessary. If that means looking in your room, looking in your drawers, and looking at your computer and phone, then I'm ready to do just that.”

In my opinion, one of the few tools parents have to do something like this after catching their child engaging in risky behavior.

Tell your child you are spying

Many parents will ask, "Why should I tell him I'm going to check his room?" He'll just hide it outside the house."

(Video) Consequences of parents snooping on their teens online

But that's not your problem as a parent. Your responsibility is to be open and clear. If he hides it outside the house, he hides it outside the house. Remember, after you find something for the first time, he'll hide it outside the house anyway. This is his choice. But you make the rules in your house and I think you should be very clear and open about that.

Make sure there are no secrets and everything is upfront before you start checking your child's room, backpack, and phone. It is important that you maintain your integrity as an honest person. You can say something like:

"You've lost my trust and I'll start checking on you more often. I'm doing this because I love you, want you to be safe, and I just won't let you do this in our house."

If you find your child engaging in risky behavior

It's awful when you try to be a "good enough parent" and then your child gets into trouble with drugs, alcohol, and other risky behaviors. In addition, our children are told a lot of nonsense about what we parents can, should and cannot do.

The fact is, it's your home. The phone plan is probably in your name and you probably bought the electronics.

But even if they are not, you have the right and duty to review them if you have reason to do so, as you have the right and duty to protect your home, your child and your other children.

Remember, when children do drugs, engage in criminal behavior, or engage in other risky activities, part of their power is to remain secret. This is one of their major flaws. "I have the right to keep secrets from you, but you have no right to keep secrets from me."

What parents can tell their child:

"You have no right to keep secrets from me if it's something that endangers you or our family."

In my practice, I would tell parents that it's okay if they have to search their child's room. If their child says, "You can't do that, I'll call the police," offer to call the police for them.

In general, I think that after a serious violation, parents should check and give their childeffective consequences– as an obligation and responsibility.

Related content:
When to call the police about your child
How to give kids consequences that work

Don't let your child turn the argument against you

When children are caught with something incriminating, many of them try to turn it around and say, "I can't believe you went into my room!" They make it seem like the parents did something wrong.

Turning around is a tactic children use to put parents on the defensive. They create an argument as a distraction to avoid taking responsibility for their actions or behavior. Below are some tactics children use in this situation and how parents should respond to ensure the discussion stays on track.

Tactic #1: "I can't believe you spied on me!"

Here's a common scenario: The parent says, "I found some papers in your desk drawer." And the child replies, "I can't believe you spied on me! I'm 16 years old. What is wrong with you?" Parents should not be drawn into this argument. Instead, parents should calmly say something like this:

"I told you I would check things out. The problem is not espionage. The problem is the rolling papers you have in your drawer. And that's the only thing I'm willing to talk to you about. If you want to scream or scream, go scream or scream somewhere else. When you're done, we'll discuss the rolling papers. I am not violating your rights, you are violating our home.”

(Video) How to parent a teen from a teen’s perspective | Lucy Androski | TEDxYouth@Okoboji

Don't keep your child arguing. Just say,

"We'll talk about it when you're ready to talk about it quietly."

And then turn around and walk away.

When your child says, "I'm ready now." Tell them:

"No, we have to wait 15 minutes. I'm not calm enough now."

Sit down, go for a walk, have a cup of tea. And then come back and talk about it and explain the consequences of your actions.

Tactic #2: "I'll keep it for a friend."

Children will also say, "Well, it's not even mine. I keep it for a friend.” I think you should respond to that by saying:

"I don't want to hear about it. It is your responsibility not to bring drugs into this house and you will be held accountable no matter what you have done.”

Children will also try to tell you that they are noble. That they are doing it to "save a friend". Don't fall for this tactic. Tell your child:

"You brought it into the house. It is yours. It is your responsibility.”

Look at it this way, if the police stop you and you have illegal drugs and you tell the police it's your cousin, they don't care. You are owned and therefore responsible and that is all that matters.

Tactic #3: "Why don't you trust me?"

As I said, young people are real pros at changing the subject. When you say, "How come I found an empty beer can under your bed," they may reply, "Why are you spying around my room - why don't you trust me?"

But that's not the problem. The problem is that your kid had an empty beer can under his bed. Holding him accountable is not espionage. And you don't violate his privacy or rights. Don't get drawn into the fight. Say:

"We're not talking about trusting you. We're not talking about invasion of your privacy. You know the rules in this house. No drugs or alcohol are allowed, either indoors or for personal use. That's the problem, not your privacy. We'll be talking about this in an hour, and I want you to be ready."

And turn around and leave the room.

Tactic #4: "You broke your promise!"

If you spy on your child for no reason and find something incriminating, I think you need to sit down and say:

(Video) Should Parents Spy on Their Kids? - TeenSafe

"Listen, I did something today that you're not going to like. I went into your room without your knowledge and looked around. And even though I know you don't like it, and I know I told you I wouldn't, today I did. And I accept that you are angry. If I can somehow make amends, I will. But while I was there I found some bottles of cough syrup. We have to talk about it and deal with it. And I want an answer as to how they got there and why they are in my house.”

Then, if your child becomes really distressing and tries to turn it around when it escalates and yells, "You promised you wouldn't go in my room," you can say:

"We'll talk about it when you've calmed down. I'll be back in half an hour."

And turn around and go. In that case, I think you should admit you were wrong and apologize if you are. But the problem must also be solved. Some things are just so important.

Is it okay to take the door out of my child's bedroom?

I've known families where they've taken down an acting child's bedroom door. My question to them is always this: "Well, how is he going to have his privacy?"

If you take down her door, I think you should have a good reason. If your child smokes weed in their room and hangs out the window, I think that's a good reason.

But ask yourself this: once you've taken the door off, how are you going to make him earn it back? It doesn't say, "The door's gone forever." And it doesn't even say, "The door's gone a month." It's, "The door's gone until you..." Just like we teachThe total transformation, giving it a task-oriented consequence.

By the way, we're not talking about your child regaining your trust. If your child would like to regain your trust and privacy so that you no longer have to spy on them, that can be discussed at a later date. Just tell your child:

"That's not on the table now. At the moment we are dealing with the consequences of your actions.”

Privacy is a privilege, not a right

Again, giving a child privacy about what's going on in their room or what's in their drawers is a privilege because they're trustworthy and honest. In my opinion it is not right.

And your children should know that if they break your trust, one of the things that will change is that you will watch them more closely. And yes, that could mean going through her drawers or closet, or going through her phone.

But that's the price they pay for being dishonest and untrustworthy. We all have to learn in life that losing someone's trust is very powerful. People are fired when they break the rules and can no longer be trusted.

Trust is not something to be taken lightly, both inside and outside your home. It's not spying if you decide you need to take extra steps to protect your kids from what's going on in the outside world and their own bad decisions, especially if you have other kids around the house.

Note: If you need support and guidance for your child's drug issues, we recommend starting withThe partnership for drug-free childrenor arrange an appointment with one of ourOnline Parenting Coach.

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