Parenting, Tweens & Teens

Teens’ Rights To Privacy


Lindsay Cahill*, mom to a boy, 13, and two girls, 15 and 16, says that when her daughters were each in sixth grade, they started sharing less about their lives.

“There was secretiveness in their bedrooms, phone calls, being dramatic over boys,” she says. “They didn’t want to share that with me because they probably thought I’d think they were being silly, because they were being silly. They were being very over-dramatic about this thing or that thing, or it was gossip.”

Even though Lindsay heard some of what her daughters were discussing with their friends, she was smart to keep her thoughts about it to herself, according to Nancy Timm, LCSW-BACS, a clinical social worker with Pelts, Kirkhart and Associates (speaking in general and not in response to what Lindsay has said).

“What I hear from kids is, ‘Parents have a right to monitor my activities, but they have no right to comment on my social life. The girl drama at school is none of their business,’” explains Timm. “It’s developmentally appropriate for a teen to say, ‘I don’t want you to know what’s going on in my life,’ but parents can say, ‘You don’t have to share what’s going on with me. But I would love it if you would.’”

Parents can help facilitate conversations by being available. “Kids will often get in the car and mom wants to talk, will ask how about their day,” says Timm. “They’ll say, ‘Fine. Nothing. Leave me alone.’ But later, when mom is busy—on the phone or making dinner—they want to talk. Let them know that you’re there to listen.”

space, with limits

The move from hanging out in the family room and telling you their every thought to long silences can seemingly happen overnight, though exactly when it occurs can vary greatly.

“In a lot of ways, it depends on the developmental age of the child, not the chronological age,” says Timm. “Some start hitting those ‘teen’ years at age nine; some don’t hit them until 16.”

For parents thinking that they’ve done something wrong, stop worrying. It’s actually developmentally appropriate for adolescents to seek more privacy and freedom, according to Timm. But they still need limits. “Kids don’t like it when parents give them too much space. They think that parents don’t care about what’s going on in their lives. Being on top of their behavior shows that you care.”

One of the most visceral signs for parents that a child is shutting them out of his life is the closed bedroom door. With her own children, Lindsay sees this “not so much as a desire for privacy, but more of a desire to be their own person rather than just an extension of the family. They’re not in their own home. Their room is the only environment that is their own. Plus, they think we’re all nags,” she adds, laughing. “If they go downstairs, we’ll just ask them to do something.”

Timm says that parents should respect their children’s right to close their door, but can draw the line at allowing them to lock it. “Parents can tell their children, ‘It’s a hazard. I promise that the whole family will knock.’”

In this social media world, privacy doesn’t just involve closed doors. “You can be sitting right next to your teen, and they’re doing something very private on their cell phone,” says Timm. “With a cell phone or access to Tumbler or Vine or whatever they’re on, tell them early on, privacy is a privilege—not a right—that they have to earn. You have to train them: If you don’t want us to read it, don’t put it on the site for us—and others—to read.”

okay to snoop?

As far as checking their cell phone, Timm says that if you’re going to monitor them, you need to tell them. “You owe them that courtesy.” And the moment a parent thinks something is wrong, snooping is okay. “Parents have the right to snoop, but they have to tell the child they are doing that. Parents oftentimes know when something isn’t right.”

Lindsay experienced that. “You know when they’re keeping a big, bad secret. Sometimes it’s not just about disappearing into their rooms. It’s the reason why they’re up there.”

When her younger daughter, Allie, was in 7th grade, she stopped talking to her mom, stopping talking during family meals, and retreated to her room all the time.

“She was up there cutting herself,” says Lindsay, her voice rising in distress at the memory. She eventually learned that her daughter was being bullied at school. “She didn’t want to tell me. I think she feared that I’d do something about it, intervene, and cause her even more problems.”

Lindsay got Allie into counseling. She also worked with the counselor, too, learning how to communicate better with her children, “like not stopping the conversation by telling them what to think.”

Now 15 and a sophomore, Allie enjoys hanging out with her friends and her family. Her mom reports that her bedroom “is still very much her own little universe. She’s sitting on her bed playing her guitar. Her door is closed, but that’s just so I don’t get a headache from her burning incense.”


*name changed.

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