Dear Dr. Wes and Julia: In your opinion, how much freedom or privacy should a parent give to teens? That is, is it ever OK to "snoop"?
Wes: Actually, I think this is the big question of modern parenting - we just don't know it yet. There are two schools of thought about this issue, and despite spending a lot of time on it, I don't have it all figured out yet myself. In his book "Yes, Your Teen is Crazy," Michael Bradley argues that you should never, under any circumstances, snoop on kids. He suggests that if your kids are going down the tubes, spying will only drive them down further, and that parents can't influence teens from a position of deception and espionage. That's a pretty good argument in general, but if you take it to its logical conclusion, you end up with parents who are so naÃive about their child's conduct that they can't intervene in some pretty damaging situations. It doesn't help that Bradley only illustrates his argument with examples of teens wrongly accused by their parents and later proven innocent. Furthermore, I've been inundated over the years with young adults who are now angry with their family because as teens they were in the throes of eating disorders, cutting or drug use and their parents somehow missed the entire matter.
Instead, I think you have to be guided by an ethical approach that balances teen privacy with parental authority, even if that's tricky at times. As a rule of thumb, I'd suggest you give your kids more privacy if their judgment appears reasonably sound. The less sound their decisions appear, the closer you need to monitor them. For example, if a kid is bringing drugs into the house - or there is reasonable suspicion that he is - privacy is over. The other ethic I would use is one of self-harm. If the teen is putting him or herself at serious risk, prying is the only ethical alternative. If the kid just wants to write profound thoughts about life's pain or talk intimately with a boy or girlfriend in a manner you might not approve of, then I'd leave that totally alone. In less-risky situations and especially in matters of relationships and sexuality, prying is rarely helpful. If you can't have an open discussion with your child about the risks and benefits of various relational practices, you'll have more problems if you resort to snooping.
Finally, before heading into the snooping realm, be absolutely clear how you will use any information you obtain. For example, if you go in looking for drugs and find out your child is gay, how are you going to respond? That scenario alone - and I could generate about 50 more - should give one the necessary pause before going off half-cocked to dig out a teenager's secrets. In short, the more snooping generates anger, hurt or family upheaval, the less you want to do it. If it creates a loving, important intervention for a child at serious risk, then it may at times be justified.
Julia: Snooping is in the eye of the beholder. What may feel like an innocent "how was your day today" can set off unexpected reactions in your teen. While snooping is generally done to acquire information not easily gathered, it's better to avoid it altogether and instead get information firsthand. If your teens know you trust them, they will be more likely to tell you what's happening in their lives.
The first thing to remember is what sets your teen off. If you know that something you routinely ask drives them nuts, then don't ask. It is unnecessary, and the more you ask, the less they'll let reveal until you're completely shut out. Another problem in adults is paying attention. Teen and adult minds work differently, but both zone out, and neither likes feeling that nobody is paying attention. Listening closely to your teen means that you won't have to repeat questions and you'll be more likely to spot something wrong. The more one party talks, the more the other party feels that their feelings and responses hold no meaning. Listen to your teen and try to be less jumpy about every little new detail you hear. This gives you a stronger standing as a good guide, versus a worried parent with whom no one wants to share his or her life.
Finally, leave journals alone. Journals represent a collection of very extreme emotions and responses that the owner doesn't feel comfortable sharing with anyone. Reading a journal to find out a teen's feelings is only skirting any overall problem or concern you have with them. The same goes for checking blogs and other journal-esque forms of writing. Of course, blogs are meant for the public to see, but they are only meant for a teen's selective public, not usually including their parents. All in all, snooping makes a teen feel picked on and not trustworthy because you cannot talk face to face and you must resort to underhanded ways of gaining information. As much as possible, leave the sneaky stuff out of your interactions and salvage the secure trust and honesty of your parent-teen relationship.
Next week: Does society feminize teenage boys?
Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.