Privacy, monitoring and trust for pre-teens and teenagers: finding a balance
As your child gets older, they need more privacy and personal space.
This is because your child is exploring new ideas, emotions and social interests. Your child is also working out what kind of person they are or want to be. It’s natural for your child to keep ideas and information to themselves as they do this.
Giving your child time and privacy to think and explore is an important part of supporting their growing independence. That’s because part of growing up is learning to handle new ideas, emotions and interests with independence and responsibility.
Because the teenage brain is still developing, teenagers sometimes make quick decisions and don’t always think through the consequences of their behaviour.
This means that your child needs you to stay in touch with them, so you can guide and support them. This is called monitoring.
But because teenagers also need privacy and independence, you need to monitor your child differently from when they were younger. For example, your child might gradually start getting around independently and checking in with you at agreed times.
This means you trust your child to make good decisions, behave appropriately, and decide what information they need or want to share with you and others.
Trust goes both ways. Your child needs to trust that you respect their right to have privacy and a say in decisions about their life.
When you and your child have mutual trust, you’ll have better communication. Your child will also be more likely to come to you when they need help.
Wanting more privacy and time alone doesn’t mean teenagers have something to hide. But if teenagers spend many hours in their rooms, don’t ever want to talk or seem very withdrawn, it could be a warning sign of depression, anxiety, smoking, alcohol or other drug use, or other problem activities. It could also be that your child is spending too much time alone on the computer or internet.
Respecting privacy for pre-teens and teenagers
How much privacy is appropriate? If you’re not sure, it can help to ask yourself what you really need to know.
For example, there are some things you need to know, like where your child is going to be on Saturday night, how they’re getting there and back, and whether there’ll be alcohol or adult supervision.
But there are other things that can be private between your child and their friends – for example, what they talked about at a party, or who they danced with.
Practical ways to respect your child’s privacy include:
- knocking before going into their room
- giving them space to talk with their friends
- asking before looking in or getting things out of their school bag
- checking whether your child wants you to be there when they see the doctor.
It can also help to discuss privacy with your child, set some ground rules and work out some boundaries. These can be changed as your child gets older.
You might also want to talk about situations where you’d need to cross the agreed boundaries. For example, this could be when you’re really worried that something isn’t right with your child.
To send the message that you respect your child’s privacy, you could avoid things like:
- listening to their telephone conversations
- looking at things in their room or in their drawers
- reading their diary or checking their email account
- ‘friending’ them or communicating with them on social media if they don’t want you to
- calling them to check on them all the time.
Monitoring pre-teens and teenagers successfully
The best monitoring is based on everyday rules and routines, plus staying connected with your child. This low-key approach to monitoring builds trust, strengthens your relationship, and makes it more likely that your child will share what they’re up to.
Family rules and routines
- If you can’t be there when your child comes home from school, ask them to call or text to let you know they’re home. This is a reasonable request.
- Make a regular family dinner part of your routine. This can be a good chance for everyone to chat about their days and their plans for the next day.
- Set some ground rules about what your child can do in free time. This means you won’t have to look over your child’s shoulder all the time. For example, you might negotiate a ground rule about what time your child comes home on Saturday nights.
- In the early years of adolescence, set some expectations about what you need to know. For example, this might include where your child is going and who they’ll be with. If your child is in the habit of giving you this information when they’re younger, they’re more likely to share it as they get older too.
- Be aware of what your child is reading, seeing on TV, and doing on the internet.
Staying connected with your child
- When your child starts a conversation, stop what you’re doing and actively listen to your child. This sends the message that you’re interested in what’s going on in their life.
- Try to be aware of what your child is doing and how they’re behaving. This might make it easier to spot any changes in their behaviour that might signal a problem.
- Keep a general eye on school progress, homework and deadlines. This is easier to do when you have a good relationship with your child’s school and teachers.
- Get to know your child’s friends and give them a space in your home. This helps you keep in touch with your child’s friendships and relationships without always having to ask. Communicating with the parents of your child’s friends can also help you keep track of your child and their friends.
- Try to avoid breaking your child’s trust or invading their privacy. But there might be times when you need to ask firmly for information – for example, ‘Where were you?’ or ‘Where are you going?’
Too little monitoring can leave teenagers without the support they need to make safe decisions about behaviour and relationships. But too much monitoring can send the message you don’t trust your child. When you monitor your child in a trusting environment, you’re giving your child what they need to learn how to make good decisions and behave responsibly.
Handling breaches of trust
Your child might break your trust or misuse their privacy.
For a one-off breach, you could withdraw a privilege. For example, you could take away some TV or computer time, or not drive your child to an activity. You might also need to monitor your child more closely for a period while you rebuild trust.
For major breaches of trust, or breaches that keep happening, you and your child will need to rebuild trust over time. You might need to use strategies like:
- ‘grounding’ (banning social activities for a period of time)
- withdrawing privileges like access to social media or devices
- withholding non-essential lifts
- stopping your child’s pocket money.
You can try to negotiate practical ways your child can earn back your trust – for example, by showing you that they can be responsible for certain tasks over a period of time. Letting your child know that you still love them even though you’re disappointed in their behaviour will help your child bounce back and learn from their mistakes.
Remember that trust goes both ways. If you breach your child’s trust or privacy, it’s important to take responsibility for this and say sorry. By doing this, you set a good example for your child. Your child will also respect you more if you can admit that you’ve overstepped the boundary.