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Child Caringb

Snoop Daddy don't

It's tempting, but your kids need privacy

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / November 7, 2002

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When her daughter was 10 and 11 and left her diary lying around the house, Teri often read it. "There was nothing she wasn't already talking to me about," Teri says. "I practically knew what she would write before she wrote it."

Her daughter is 14 now. The diary is never just lying around anymore, and Teri couldn't even begin to guess her daughter's innermost thoughts. To some parents, that alone might justify looking for the diary and reading it.

"It's very tempting," admits Teri.

Uh-oh.

"I think about it," she says. "I don't do it."

What feels like an extension of a conversation to a 10- or 11-year-old would be an invasion of privacy to a 14-year-old. Teri is smart enough to know that. Yet, given the kinds of trouble teenagers can get into, she wonders: Aren't there times when it's OK to sneak a peek, not just because you're looking for signs of a problem but to get a dose of reassurance that nothing's wrong? To know that you're not missing something important?

Absolutely not.

As benign as it may seem, professionals who specialize in adolescent issues say that snooping as a way to know your child better, to gain evidence to convince a more skeptical spouse, or even just out of curiosity, is flat-out wrong. Teenagers have a right to privacy and to trust their parents will honor it.

"If you are thinking about snooping, ask yourself why," says Quincy adolescent psychologist Norine Johnson, immediate past president of the American Psychological Association and a professor at Boston University. "If it's because you've lost touch, it's not snooping that's needed, it's relationship building."

That's not always easy, given how secretive teenagers tend to be. For girls, being secretive is almost always because they don't want to disappoint us, says Johnson, or because they think we're too old to understand. Boys typically are secretive out of a sense of entitlement: I can take care of myself.

Well, maybe he can, but even if you have the most self-assured, independent teenager on the planet, it is still a parent's job to continually put values on the table, to maintain a relationship that allows some communication, to talk to other people in his or her life, and to set clear ground rules so you can monitor a teenager's behavior and have a reasonable sense of what's going on.

In other words, it's a parent's job to have enough information so you don't need to snoop.

Adolescent researcher Robert Blum, for instance, has a non-negotiable rule with his 17-year-old daughter: "If you drink, you can call us and we will pick you up, no questions asked. But if I ever find out that you are drinking and driving, you will lose your keys for an indefinite period of time." Blum is director of the Center for Adolescent Health and Development at the University of Minnesota and lead author of a new study on teen-parent communication.

Another adolescent specialist, author Joe DiPrisco of San Francisco, says Internet chat rooms are among the gravest dangers for teenage girls because girls engage in fantasy relationships, sometimes with predators who lure them to real-life meetings. Because of that risk, he says, "Parents have a right to know where their daughter goes on-line."

Even do that without spying, though: (1) Have the computer in a public space in the house so you can see what's on the screen without invading privacy; (2) tell your teen what Internet sites you consider off-limits or parental-permission-needed and that you will periodically check the Internet use history (see tips at right). DiPrisco is co-author of "Right from Wrong, Instilling a Sense of Integrity in Your Child" (Perseus).

Rules like this not only eliminate the need to snoop but also give teenagers much-needed boundaries and have the added advantage of making a parent's job easier. You both know where the line was crossed, enabling you to say, "You broke our trust. One of the consequences is that now I'm going to be checking up on you a lot more." That's still not a blank check to snoop, though.

There are times when parents come by unexpected information legitimately, although teenagers are likely to cry foul nonetheless. You go through your son's pants pockets when you're doing the laundry and you find a joint. Your daughter's handbag spills out on the kitchen table and there's a miniature bottle of vodka. You're cleaning her room and there's a packet of birth control pills on her desk.

None of this is snooping. (Neither is sticking your head in the room and looking around, or reading a postcard in today's mail; but it is snooping if you rummage through her handbag, search her desk, open a letter, or even read a letter that's folded on her desk.) Blum would confront a teenager immediately: "'I was doing the laundry. I found this. We need to talk." Expect anger and denial, including plausible-sounding excuses. ("It's not mine, it's my friend's.")

Too many parents are too quick to back off. Johnson's advice is direct: "You need to stand up to the storm: `I can understand you're upset we discovered this, but we have to deal with what we found.' " Often, that means getting professional help.

There also are times when teenagers will purposefully leave something for you to "find."

"Teens can be stupid and careless, but I believe that when that happens, it's because they want to talk to us and don't know how else to initiate a conversation," says Blum.

The parent's response is the same as above: "We've noticed this. We need to talk."

What if you are worried about your teenager and suspicious about a behavior, and want to confirm your suspicion?

"Confront your teen directly," urges pediatrician and adolescent specialist Ralph I. Lopez of New York City. "List the specific behaviors that you've noticed. Then say, `We're worried you might be drinking/doing drugs /having unprotected sex. We need to talk." He is author of "The Teen Health Book, A Parent's Guide to Adolescent Health and Well-Being" (Norton.)

Despite the denials, often tearful, Blum would go on to say, "Because of our concern, we are going to speak to your siblings, your friends, your teachers, to gain more information so we know how to help you."

He still wouldn't snoop, though. "You can gain enough information in other ways," he says.

In fact, Blum has only one exception to his no-snooping rule: "I would search for weapons if I thought a teen was involved in anything violent, in gangs or cults."

Johnson and DiPrisco are somewhat freer with exceptions. "Would I snoop for laxatives if I suspected an eating disorder? Yes," says Johnson.

"If there were signs my child was using and was in danger, was depressed, and might be suicidal? Yes," says DiPrisco. "I would get in that room and find out what's going on."

Even though Johnson knows of cases where parental snooping has saved a teenager from destructive behavior, she tells parents not to underestimate the risk they run when they snoop. While 12-to 14-year-olds may express gratitude for being bailed out, that's less likely as they get older.

"A 17-year-old who feels snooped on will likely just move out," she says. She estimates about one-third of the parents in her practice are there to restore relationship damage caused by snooping. "The good news," she says, "is that it can be done."

Lopez says he gets a call about once a week from parents who say, "I snooped. Now what?" Then they go on to reassure him, "I can get her to tell me without her ever realizing what I did."

"So why didn't they just do that to start with?" he asks.

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