Why Teens Need Privacy From Their Parents

Smiling teenage girl writing in a journal

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The desire for more privacy is a natural part of growing up. In fact, privacy is essential for teens to gain autonomy and individuality. It can be hard for parents to let go of supervising every aspect of their child's life. However, giving kids more and more freedom is a key part of helping them grow up and develop the skills they need to be functioning adults.

While extreme secrecy can be a red flag, it is natural for teens to crave more privacy and space as they mature. Being more protective of information about themselves and their life outside of their family goes hand-in-hand with new independence.

Raising a healthy, trustworthy, and independent teen requires honoring their growing need for privacy. Learn more about the relationship between privacy and trust and the natural development of autonomy.

The Link Between Privacy and Trust

As teens grow up, they seek more responsibility and independence. They want to be trusted to do more than they did when they were younger. They also want to be thought of as mature. They want you to respect their opinions and desires.

However, the foundation for teen privacy has to be built way before adolescence. Angela Lamson, PhD, LMFT, is a family therapist in Greenville, North Carolina, and human development and family science professor at East Carolina University. She says building trust starts when your child is a baby and you begin building a strong parent-child bond that also honors the child as an individual.

"Privacy and trust link back to attachment," says Dr. Lamson. As your child ages, if you've cultivated an open dialogue and trust-based bond, you'll be able to grant them more and more freedoms—and the privacy that goes along with burgeoning independence.

Giving teens space and privacy lets them feel trusted, as well as capable, independent, and self-assured. Allowing them appropriate levels of privacy shows them that you trust their judgment, intentions, decision-making, and ability to follow your rules.

"It’s very important to talk to your children about what privacy means," says Dr. Lamson. Privacy isn't just limited to their friends, possessions, online presence, room, conversations, and social or romantic interactions. It's also about their body and who has permission to touch or see it, explains Dr. Lamson.

Why Teens Need Privacy

The job of parents is to shepherd their baby from infancy through childhood, the teen years, and beyond. What parents don't always recognize is that in order to launch their teens into adulthood, they need to let them practice and develop the skills needed to live on their own. Learning to use privacy appropriately is a big part of this process of becoming independent, responsible, and ready to leave the nest.

Along the way to autonomy and adulthood, increasing amounts of privacy allow your teen the chance to develop several skills and learn important lessons.

Space to Develop Their Interests

As teens get older, they face big challenges, like learning what kind of person they want to be, where they fit in, and what they want to do in life. Their brains also are rapidly developing; they are gaining new thinking skills and developing new social, romantic, practical, and professional interests.

For parents, this time can be a huge adjustment as well. After all, there are so many unknowns with your teen that it can be unsettling, says Dr. Lamson. It can feel scary to let go, especially if it feels like they are drifting away—or you worry they could make poor choices.

But it is important to recognize that wanting more privacy does not necessarily mean that your child has something to hide. Instead, it is a healthy part of individuation.

Respect for Modesty

Remember, too, that teens also go through rapid physical changes that make privacy at this age feel more important due to modesty and burgeoning sexuality. A child who always felt comfortable changing clothes in front of their parent may no longer want to disrobe with them in the room. 

They also may lock their bedroom door or the bathroom door to ensure that their privacy is respected. This is a normal part of growing up and not a reason for concern.

Teens may also feel more comfortable asking questions or confiding in a same-sex parent about certain issues, such as menstruation or masturbation. This is especially true if they need guidance about romantic relationships or the physiological changes they're experiencing.

Confidence

When teens are given the privacy they need, it helps them become more independent and builds their self-confidence. As their parent, strive to strike a balance between knowing what your teen is doing, trusting them to have some private matters, and knowing when to step in.

Overall, trust your instincts. But aim to give your teen the benefit of the doubt when it's reasonable to do so.

Remember, offering your child privacy—and the trust that goes along with that—lets them know you believe in them and trust them to make good choices. Ultimately, the more they believe you believe in them, the more likely they will be to rise to the occasion.

That said, don't ignore signs that that trust has been broken, says Dr. Lamson. Be ready to step in if they show you that they need more supervision or scaffolding to live up to your behavioral expectations.

If you and your teen are battling over their need for privacy, there are probably trust issues at the root, says Dr. Lamson. Work on repairing those by talking through whatever issue is at hand and coming up with collaborative solutions.

Fewer Conflicts

When teens believe their parents have invaded their privacy, the result is often more conflict at home. Teens may either feel like their parents don't trust them or that they still see them like younger children.

If this is your experience, take a step back and determine where you can give your teen more space and privacy without compromising their need for safety and guidance from you. If you suspect that your teen is hiding something of concern, such as drinking, smoking, or staying up all night on their phone, you may need to investigate and set appropriate limits.

Balancing Privacy With Supervision

While it is important to give teens the space that they crave, keep in mind that teens are not always ready to deal with adult decisions and responsibility. They still need your guidance and watchful eye.

It is not uncommon for teens to make quick decisions and fail to think through the consequences of their choices. The teenage brain is impulsive and often lacks critical decision-making skills. So, it's important to keep tabs on them.

Teens still need your advice and support—and at times, supervision. They also need to communicate with you on a regular basis and demonstrate that they are using their privacy responsibly.

Giving teens privacy is not the same as giving them free rein, says Dr. Lamson. In fact, too much unsupervised time and space could result in problems down the road. Find a way to balance their need for privacy and your need to ensure their safety and security.

Finding the Right Balance

One way to determine where those boundaries exist is to ask yourself what you really need to know and what you do not need to know. For instance, you need to know where your teen is going, who they are going to be with, what they will be doing, and when they will be home.

But you do not need to know what they discussed with their friends or who has a crush on whom. Of course, some teens are willing to share this information, but if your teen is not forthcoming about such personal details, don't be too alarmed and don't demand it. The key is knowing what you absolutely have to know as a parent and the things you can allow your teen to keep private.

Other ways you can give your teen privacy include giving them time alone, knocking on the door before entering their room, not going through their things, and allowing them to see the doctor privately if they'd like.

Additionally, ask before getting something out of their wallet, backpack, or room, leave their journals and notebooks unread, and don't snoop through their phone, texts, social media accounts, and emails.

It's not to say that you can't ask questions or show interest in your teen's life. Definitely do that! The key is to leave up to them how much they share when it's on a more personal or social level. But, again, intervene right away if you have suspicions that something is off—and especially if you have good reason to know something is going on that breaks your rules or is not safe.

"We cannot expect children of any age or adults of any age to be perfect," says Dr. Lamson. So, when a breach of trust occurs, roll back some privacy privileges until your teen has re-earned the trust needed to try again.

Earning Privacy Through Responsibility

To determine how much privacy and freedom your teen is ready for, consider how responsible they are with their obligations. Do they get to school on time, do their homework, respect their curfew, and do their chores without reminders?

If your teen completes these tasks without a lot of nagging from you, you can probably loosen the reins a little bit, says Dr. Lamson. Overall, there should be a direct link between the responsibility, positive behavior, and honesty that kids show and the amount of privacy they are allowed to have.

If your teen messes up or violates your trust, allowing them a little less privacy for a period of time is a logical consequence. Ideally, family rules and privacy expectations need to be discussed and put in place before an infraction occurs, says Dr. Lamson. It's important for teens to understand what the consequences will be if they break the rules.

When your child makes a mistake, don't see it as a failure, says Dr. Lamson. "Instead, look at it as an opportunity for learning." So, rather than punishing or shaming your child, work on developing trust and any skills they need in order to successfully try again.

Online Privacy

A teen's need for privacy on social media is similar to their need for privacy in real life. Likewise, it's just as important to mentor and guide them online to make sure they know what behavior is safe and appropriate. And they need to understand the potential repercussions and permanence of what they post online.

However, unless there is a compelling reason to do so, you should not be snooping at their texts or social media posts without their permission, says Dr. Lamson.

Role-model appropriate social media use by not posting photos and information about your teen on your own feeds without their permission.

When it comes to their social media use, teens need to earn your trust just like other privileges. But once they have earned that trust, it's fair to give them their privacy so they can continue to mature and become more independent.

Even if you do have concerns, your first response doesn't have to be to invade their online privacy, says Dr. Lamson. "If your child is giving you cues that something doesn’t seem right, then have the conversation rather than going into the phone or the computer" without their knowledge.

When to Invade a Teen's Privacy

While giving your teen privacy is the goal, there are times when it may be appropriate to monitor your teen more intently. For instance, if you overhear them talking about dating violence, see them crying over an Instagram post, or you find a JUUL in their pocket while doing laundry, it is time to pry a little bit.

Your job as a parent is to keep your kids safe. These types of things are red flags that something harmful is happening in their lives—and they won't always speak up.

Nevertheless, parents should not spy on their kids or snoop through their phones in order to find out about minor situations like an argument with a friend. Instead, reserve your checking in for times when your teen's behavior has changed dramatically or you notice something troubling.

For instance, if you observe signs of depression, issues with sleep, or unexplained marks or bruises on their body, it is time to take action, says Dr. Lamson. Other red flags include losing interest in hobbies, becoming withdrawn, stopping socializing, or signs of drug or alcohol use.

How to Respond to Red Flags

Start by trying to communicate with your teen about the changes you are seeing, says Dr. Lamson. Ask why they no longer want to play on the basketball team or hang out with their best childhood friend. Then, listen to what your teen says. 

If all you get in response is an angry rebuff or a shrug or "I don't know," consider having your child talk to a counselor. Meanwhile, if your teen mentions suicide, wanting to die, or that life is just not worth it, forget snooping and seek medical help right away.

If your teen is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

A Word From Verywell

Privacy and trust go hand-in-hand with keeping your teen safe while developing their autonomy. Too little monitoring can leave teens without the help and support they need to make safe decisions about their life and their relationships. But hovering over them and demanding too many details can send the message that you don't trust them—and hamper their path toward adulthood.

The goal is to parent teens in a trusting environment that prioritizes the parent-child bond. Aim to strike a balance between allowing them space while also offering the support they need to learn how to make responsible, healthy choices.

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15 Sources
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