Behind the Door: Teen Privacy, Monitoring, and Trust

Round about our son’s thirteenth birthday, doors started closing. Any room he occupies, if that room has a door, that door is closed.

The bathroom, of course, I have no problem with. Shut away, my good man. But his bedroom, the study – there’s always a couple inches of wood between my boy and the rest of the family. To be honest, it irritates me a bit. What’s he doing behind these closed doors that requires so much privacy? So much secrecy? Masturbating? If so then yes, that’s something one generally doesn’t share with the rest of the family, so a closed door is preferable. But he can’t be giving squidward the business all the time, and certainly not in the study, so why must the rest of us walk past perennially sealed rooms? When did doing your homework require more mystery and seclusion than the selection of a new pope?

Okay, I’m all for giving people any degree of privacy they desire or require. I realize that teenagers need time and space alone to work stuff out. “They’re not just goofing off,” says psychologist Dr. Peter Marshall. “They spend a large part of their time just thinking about things, trying to figure out who they are, who they want to become.” Fair enough. But the closed doors are just a part of a subtle yet perceptible withdrawal from family life.

Wanting to bolt from the table as soon as he’s done with dinner. No longer wanting to play cards with the rest of the family. Then there’s Pizza Picnic Party. Every Friday night, as we have for years now, we make pizza and eat it in the living room while watching a film. Problem is, he’s not interested in the same movies as his little brother anymore, and as soon as he’s done eating he dashes back to his bedroom and ‘click’ goes the door. All of this is perfectly natural and understandable – I don’t think I was any different at his age – but it’s a little sad, a little worrisome. Sad because you’re losing a degree of closeness: emotionally, psychologically, and, yes, spatially. Worrisome because, well, what the hell is he doing in there?

You want to keep your kids safe. You want to shield them from online bullies, predators, inappropriate violence, racism, misogyny, FOX news. But that’s hard to do if doors – literal and metaphorical ones – are always closed. You could go the full-on psycho stalker route with an app like SpyFone, with allows you to “monitor everything” – their location, the content of every SMS, social media post, email and photo. But that is, in my view, completely invasive and inappropriate. Do you really want to read the content of every message they send to their friends? Would you want them to read yours? And if they know you’re tapping their communications, do you think they’re going to divulge any useful information? And not telling them about your surveillance, well that’s just plain wrong.

I also think it’s counterproductive. A study of 455 adolescents found that “teenagers who believed their parents had secretly listened in on their conversations or searched through their possessions without permission shared less information with their folks than teenagers who felt their parents respected appropriate boundaries. Parental snooping may trigger or perpetuate a cycle in which adolescents become more and more furtive at home.”

“When parents engage in behaviors that teenagers see as privacy invasions,” notes psychologist Dr. Skyler Hawk, “it backfires because parents end up knowing less.”

For me, if your kid is responsible, comes home on time, and is just generally trustworthy and honest, you should respect their privacy and their space. And you should probably tell them that: “Hey, I think you’re doing great, I have no reason not to trust you, so I’m not going to interfere with your privacy.” This reinforces the idea that you’ve been pounding into their heads since birth that good behavior is rewarded.

But of course there’s a flip side to that. They come home late. They say they’re with someone when they’re not. You find out they’ve been drinking or doing drugs. Well, that’s obviously problematic and needs to be addressed. But set aside the outrage and the fury. Once again, counterproductive.

“Kids are actually going to listen less when you yell at them,” says Joseph Shrand, Ph.D., instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “As soon as you begin to raise your voice, you activate their limbic system, which is an ancient part of the brain that’s responsible for, among other things, the fight-or-flight response.” Result? Your kids freeze up, fight back, or run away, even if it’s just emotionally or mentally. As difficult as it is sometimes, it’s definitely better to keep calm and simply discuss the situation. Describe what you’ve seen, tell them why it’s risky or detrimental, and let them understand that if it continues you’re prepared to take away privileges or privacy.

Bottom line, I think your kids have a right to keep secrets from you, just as you keep secrets from them. Yes, you do, and you know it. But if their secrets can be potentially harmful to them or to the family, then you as a parent have a right – and a responsibility – to know.

Like pretty much everything else in life, your teen’s need for privacy and your need to keep him or her safe is a question of balance. I must say  that so far finding that balance hasn’t been easy, or necessarily successful.

The metaphors of doors are always about them opening; there are no inspirational posters about closed doors. So what do you do when your teenager’s door suddenly starts shutting in your face? I don’t really know. I suppose you give them the privacy they crave, but do your best to keep the doors of communication from getting sealed shut. And let them know that your door – and your arms – will always be open for them.

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