To Snoop or Not to Snoop: Staying Informed About Our Teens

Picture your teenage daughter or son bursting in the door and eagerly describing all the specifics you’ve been dying for: who she sits with at lunch, what prompted his friends’ detention, how she really feels about the guy who’s been calling, what he’s really been up to after school. Once and for all, you would find out what your teenager truly thinks about all the important matters. Finally, you could put to rest all those niggling doubts about whether your child has been completely honest with you. For most parents of teenagers, this scenario occurs only in the imagination.

In reality, your teenager probably guards his privacy with a vengeance. Despite your most reasonable questions and wisest discussions, you rarely have a clear idea of what’s what. Teenagers often act as if their whereabouts and activities are classified information. Yet, learning about what is happening helps you understand and empathize with your teenager, stay closely connected, and make better, more informed decisions. When teenagers clam up, you worry that they are withholding something important or perhaps dangerous. At some point, in fact, nearly every parent panics and thinks, “I have to know what’s really going on, and I have to know it now.”

That’s when the sight of your daughter’s unlocked diary or your son’s undeleted email triggers the urge to snoop. That’s when you might be tempted to eavesdrop on a telephone conversation or take a peek in a backpack to see what you can find out. After all, it’s your parental responsibility to stay informed. How are you supposed to guide and protect your teenager if you don’t know what she is thinking or what he is up to?

It is precisely this dilemma that often has parents wondering if it is okay to snoop. For example, is it ever acceptable to search teenagers’ rooms, pockets, or backpacks? Are notes or journals left out on dressers or bathroom counters fair game? Do concerns about safety justify reading teenagers’ email?

While these methods get much-wanted information, you stand to lose far more—specifically, your teenagers’ respect, mutual trust, and the precious good will in your relationship. Also, it is hard to assess the accuracy and seriousness of second-hand information. For these reasons, snooping should be a last resort, attempted after other sources of information have been exhausted, and only if there are genuine, significant concerns about teenagers’ health or safety. Try these strategies first:

1. Make the most of your observations
Observe teenagers when you volunteer at school, when they are in your home, and as you chauffeur them to and from activities. At home, discuss teens’ favorite music and magazines. Watch popular television shows and movies together that portray teenagers. When you discuss fictional characters rather than real friends, you are apt to learn more about your teenager’s views. Be watchful about what might be going on right in your own home—not only when you are away, but also while you are busy or asleep. Teens sometimes have unsanctioned get-togethers or sneak out of their homes unbeknownst to their parents.

2. Approach your teenager effectively
Rather than beating around the bush, take a deep breath and say what you have to say—directly and non-provocatively. For example, “I heard you skipped math today” or “Did you get into a fight?” Be attuned to when teenagers are most receptive to talking, for example, not first thing in the morning or the minute they get home from school, but perhaps after dinner, during a drive, or just before bed. Keep your emotions in check. Your teenager will be less defensive when you avoid being accusatory and convey matter-of-fact curiosity. Also, ask rather than tell your teenager what she is thinking or feeling to prevent the conversation from coming to a screeching halt.

3. Use all information sources
Since you cannot force teenagers to talk, explore alternatives. Being involved in your community can keep you current on issues affecting teenagers. While volunteering in the middle or high school, serving on a committee for your synagogue or church, or participating in organizations, talk with coworkers and the parents of your teenager’s friends to learn interesting snippets of info. For parenting expertise, attend parent-teacher meetings, lectures, and workshops. Don’t be afraid to ask guidance counselors or teachers for feedback on students’ mood, difficulties, and social patterns at school. Have there been any changes in your teen’s behavior or performance? Any concerns?
Strengthen connections with the parents of your child’s friends to pool information and serve as an informal neighborhood watch.

4. A Last Resort
Perhaps there is nothing you can put your finger on, but you have a feeling something is wrong. When your gut says there is a problem, trust that intuition. Should you snoop in your teenager’s life to find out? You might feel more compelled if you see warning signs such as dramatic shifts in mood, personality, or behavior; changing friendships; declining academic performance; chronic lying; or signs of substance use.

Hopefully, between talking to your teenager and mining the resources in your community, you will feel comfortably in the know during the adolescent years. For sure, you won’t be casual or unthinking about digging for information. If a crisis prompts you to poke about in your child’s private world, be prepared for the fallout of betraying trust. But know that deep down, teenagers are ultimately relieved by their parents doing anything and everything in their power to keep them healthy and safe.

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