Parenting and Adolescent Privacy

How much to be known or not known, that is the privacy question.

Posted Feb 24, 2020

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Not only does adolescence grow the child out of the age of command (“My parents can control what I do”) into the age of consent  (“My parents can’t make me or stop me without my cooperation”); it also grows the child out of the age of confiding (“I tell my parents everything”) into the age of concealment (“I don’t tell my parents more than is good for me.”) 

“We knew our child far better than we know our adolescent. She’s a more private person than she used to be, shyer about being seen and known. And she takes much more private preparation time before she’s ready to go out in public.”

Why so? Increased self-consciousness from puberty, the push for more independence, social insecurity with peers, and the development of a more complex interior world all tend to motivate this increased desire for privacy. “I have more to keep to myself.”

The privacy conflict

And now a growing tension arises between parents and an adolescent. The teenager has a need to be less well known by parents, who have a greater need to know what is happening in their teenager’s more worldly and risky life. Thus adolescent privacy becomes a more contested area of their relationship: “My life is my business, not yours!”; “You need to tell us what is going on!”

So, is asking the right way for parents to get the information they want? No, that is often wrong. While a child may have welcomed parental questions as statements of interest, the adolescent can see parental questions in very intrusive and unwelcome terms—invasive of personal privacy and emblematic of adult authority. Now many teenagers become experts at the minimal and vague response. “___” Even when we ask nicely, we get told precious little!” “I said things were okay; what else is there to say?” So, what is a better way to satisfy the parental need to know?

Consider asking fewer questions to get information needs met, and show respect for the teenager’s right to control their own information. Employ courtesy by making a request instead. “If you could tell me more, I could be more sensitive to the situation.” “I would love to better understand what that experience was like.” “Knowing a little more about what happened would really ease my mind.” 

“That’s like treating our teenager talking to us like he’s doing us a favor!” object parents who feel they have a right to know. “Yes,” I agree. “He’s deciding to let you in on his private life, and he doesn’t have to.” Then I suggest that when any information is forthcoming, they express appreciation for being told. “Thank you for explaining and letting us know.”

Privacy from parents

Sometimes an adolescent can believe that the more privacy they keep, the freer she or he becomes. This is the notion that “parents keep best in the dark.” Actually, the opposite is true. Parents can explain: “When you keep us ignorant about what’s going on, treating privacy like secrecy, our not knowing causes us to become harder for you to live with. Lack of information causes us to imagine and worry about a lot of worst-case possibilities. For example, we may suppose you are in some kind of danger. Reaching this scary conclusion, we may want to reduce your freedom to protect you. Now we become more distrustful, suspicious, and restrictive to live with—the opposite of what you want. So it really is in your best interests to keep us adequately and accurately informed. Of course, how much you tell us is entirely up to you.”  

Bedroom privacy

Finally, symbolizing privacy at home is the adolescent bedroom, an expression of personal definition. How it is decorated, utilized, and ordered is reflective and emblematic of their growing teenager. And it is a sanctuary where the young person can feel comfortable during a period of more personal change, social complexity, and worldly demand. “My room is where I can go to be left alone.” 

Parents need to respect the bedroom because it is reflective and emblematic of the person. Yet, they wonder how much privacy of personal space to give. In general, privacy protects two freedoms: freedom from being known and freedom for doing whatever. So, parents need to let the teenager know what expectations are in place. 

At an adolescent extreme would be the anarchic bedroom: “My room is my space to keep any way I want; and the door is always closed because it’s off-limits, so keep out!” Most parents would refuse to live with a teenage bedroom on these prohibitive terms. 

Instead, they might declare terms of their own: “What you do in your room, what you have in your room, who you entertain in your room, how you keep your room, these are all partly up to us because your room is in our home. And, while we will knock on a closed door, we will not be denied entry. You may expect us to freely come and go, and to some degree supervise your bedroom, just like we routinely do the rest of your life.”