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When Is It OK to Snoop on Your Teen?

How To Respect Your Child's Privacy Without Compromising Your Parenting Responsibilities

Fifteen-year-old Mary is on the straight and narrow. She receives excellent grades at school, has never dabbled in drugs and has a group of friends who share her positive goals and morals. However, Mary's mother can't help but snoop through Mary's room, regularly reading her diary and picking up the extension to listen in on telephone calls. Mary is heartbroken at her mother's lack of trust, and angered by the invasion of privacy. Mary's mother wants to make sure her daughter doesn't make the same mistakes she made as a teen.

Seventeen-year-old John has always been a child who made his parents proud. He has received good grades in school and he has kept himself out of trouble. However, recently John has been acting a bit odd to his parents, and they feared he was experimenting with drugs or beginning to hang out with the "wrong crowd." One night when John was out on a date, his parents crept into his bedroom and searched until they found evidence that John had been using marijuana.

They waited up for John to arrive home and confronted the boy with the drug paraphernalia. John was immediately defensive, and a lengthy argument ensued throughout which John communicated his rage at their invasion of his privacy. His parents were bewildered at how to make their son understand that they simply love him and want to help put a stop to this potentially destructive behavior.

Two families with two different situations, yet both have a common dilemma. Where does a parent draw the line between wanting to protect, help and educate their child and respecting the child's desire for privacy? According to Barbara Rosen, a clinical psychologist in San Diego, Calif., parenting and privacy are not separate issues. In fact, the two should go hand-in-hand.

Talk (and Listen) If You Suspect a Problem

"Adolescent issues start early in the parent-child relationship, from the time the child is toddling around," Rosen says. "These boundaries from babyhood help us determine what's private, what's separate and how to negotiate these things. You really need to know what they are doing. However, there should never be the need to snoop."

The key to parenting adolescents is problem solving, not punishment, Rosen says. For instance, if a parent suspects that the teen is dabbling in drugs, that parent should first discuss the issue with their child, expressing concerns and the desire to help, and then go into the bedroom with the teenager, and look around together. This method will keep the focus on the issue of drug use and communicate to the child that rather than being judged or punished, the parent will lend a helping hand.

"Snooping takes the focus off the issue and onto the snooping," Rosen says. When this happens, the child will get defensive about the invasion of privacy, and that is the direction the discussion will lead. Rosen adds that it's important for parents to "connect with their kids, as opposed to disconnecting or distancing."

In the cases of both Mary and John, Rosen suggests that the invasion of privacy on the part of the parents could come from any number of factors, from the need to be controlling to the pure motive of wanting to be an involved and caring parent.

Instead of snooping, Rosen suggests you be "a reporter with your teen," that is, constantly communicating about pertinent issues during general conversations, to gain an understanding of the teen's thoughts and ideas about various subjects. "You also hear a lot driving car pools," she says.

When You Fear Violence or Suicide

There are exceptions to this open communication. Rosen stresses that it may be necessary to snoop in the case that the discussion may lead to either violence or suicidal thoughts on the part of the teen. In such cases, Rosen recommends seeking help, through self-education or from the many public and private organizations that offer individual and family counseling and crisis intervention.

Keep an eye out for warning signs, says Vicki Nevins, a clinical psychologist in San Diego, Calif. These include: falling school grades, sudden changes in friends, sudden weight loss and isolation, as indications that the teen is experiencing problems or may be mixed up with drugs or other dangerous behaviors.

"Kids live up to what your belief in them is," says Nevins. "Treat them with trust, respect and communication from an early age, then adolescence will be easier. Try to maintain that trust whenever possible, except when the teen might be a danger to himself or to someone else."

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