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Get Out! Sneaky Kids and Prying Parents Make a Toxic Mix

Do parents who pry know more about their teen's lives?

I knew my youngest was entering adolescence, when my daily mucking out of his backpack was met with a yell.

"Get out! That's MINE!"

One of the hallmarks of adolescence is that teens demand - and parents grant them - more privacy. Children have few expectations for privacy from parents. Adolescents expect more. Late adolescents and adults expect a great deal of control over what information they choose to share and what they choose to keep to themselves.

This shift seems to parallel changes in children's and adolescents' beliefs about the legitimacy of parental authority - beliefs that parents have the right to control different areas of their children's lives. For example, most kids believe it's okay for parents to set rules about prudential areas (drinking, driving, and other safety issues). They also grant parents the right to set rules about conventional areas (dress, chores), academics, and moral issues (don't hit your brother!). And, because they think it's okay for parents to set rules in these areas, they also tend to be willing to share information about these things.

Teens want control over personal information

But personal issues - that's private. Most kids resist sharing too much information about their friendships, their choices about reading or media, or other issues having to do with taste. Don't even think about their e-mail, phone records, or diary. Sure, they might talk about these things. But when parents start to ask questions, they meet with resistance.

It's 10:00. How can I know where my kid is if they won't tell me?

This poses a bit of a dilemma for parents. For the last four decades, researchers, policymakers, and random strangers have been telling parents that it's important that they know what's going on in their children's lives. The more parents know, the less likely children are to get in trouble and the more likely they are to do well in school. Knowledge is important. You can't parent effectively if you don't know your kids are doing.

Knowing about teens' lives can be a challenge, however. Although those "It's 10:00, do you know where your child is?" announcements imply that the source of knowledge is parental monitoring, it turns out that this is just not true. During the last decade, we've learned that most of what parents know about their adolescents' lives comes the teens themselves.

Parents know because teens tell (Stattin & Kerr, 1990; Darling, Cumsille, Caldwell, & Dowdy, 2006). In fact, most of the knowledge comes because the children VOLUNTEER information. They chat. They tell you about school. They complain about their homework. They giggle about their friends.

Herein lies the dilemma . . . How do you learn about their lives when they don't?

The negative cycle of secrecy, invasion of privacy, low knowledge, and problem behaviors

Skyler Hawk and Loes Keijers recently reported a study of what happens when parents and kids begin a cycle of secrecy. Their study is based on almost 500 families they studied longitudinally for three years from age 12 to 15.

Here's how it goes:

  • Kids begin by keeping secrets, often because they have been engaging - or thinking about engaging - in something that their parents probably wouldn't approve of
  • When parents detect that their kids are keeping secrets, they go on alert. They know something is wrong, but they don't know what.
  • When they don't have enough information, they start looking for it. This could include asking kids directly, start going through their things, or otherwise 'snooping'. What is key is that parents are acting in ways that make kids feel the need to push back and re-establish boundaries. For example, kids report that their parents:
    • "Are always nosing into my business"
    • "Have to know everything about me"
    • "Butt into my private matters"

Does snooping give parents answers?

In a word, NO.

When parents become 'nosy', teens respond by becoming more secretive.

When teens become more secretive, parents know less. Why? Because most of what parents know comes directly from their children's voluntary disclosure. And the kids have stopped talking.

But it gets worse . . .

Does secrecy restore teen's privacy?

Being secretive doesn't help kids either.

Adolescents' increased secrecy causes parents to feel they don't have enough information. And when parents feel they don't know enough, they try to get more. They pry.

In other words, adolescent secrecy begets parental invasion. And parental invasion begets greater adolescent secrecy.

So what happens? In the long term, parents have less of the information that they need to parent effectively, kids are more likely to get in trouble, and more likely to feel that their parents are invading their privacy.

A lose-lose situation if ever there was one.

Coming soon . . .

© 2011 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

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