Content Map Terms

Teen Privacy and Trust


teen boy reading alone with headphones on


The desire for more privacy is a natural part of adolescence. At the same time, teenagers still need your support to make good decisions. Trust is the key to finding a balance between your child’s need for privacy and your need to know what’s going on.

The basics

As your child gets older he’ll need more privacy and more personal and psychological space. This is because he’s dealing with big teenage challenges, such as working out what kind of person he is. He’s also gaining new physical and thinking capacities, and developing new social interests. Part of becoming a grown-up is learning to handle these challenges with independence and responsibility.

Wanting more privacy and time alone doesn’t necessarily mean your child has something to hide. Secrecy goes along with the development of independence - it’s a natural part of adolescence.
Extreme secrecy can sometimes be a sign of a more serious problem. If a child spends many hours in her room, doesn’t ever want to talk or seems very withdrawn you may want to seek help. A doctor or school counsellor is a good place to start.

Teens aren’t quite ready to deal with the adult world - the teenage brain is still developing, which means teens are more prone to impulsive and risky behaviour . Teens still need your advice and support. They need you to stay in touch with them and what they’re up to – this is called monitoring.

But because teens also need privacy and independence, you’ll need to monitor your child differently from when he was younger. You might need to use more sensitivity and discretion.

Respecting your teen’s privacy

Asking yourself what you really need to know might help you work out where the boundary is when it comes to your child’s privacy. There are some things you need to know, such as where your child’s going to be on Saturday night and how she’s getting there and back. Other things can be left private between your child and her friends – for example, what they talked about at a party, or who they danced with.

Practical ways you could respect your teen’s privacy include:

  • knocking before going into his room
  • asking before looking in his school bag
  • checking if your child wants you to be there when he sees the doctor 

It can also help to discuss privacy with your child, set some ground rules and work out some boundaries. These can be changed as your child gets older. You might also want to talk about situations where you’d need to cross the agreed boundaries.

To send the message that you respect your teen’s privacy, you could avoid things like:

  • listening in to her telephone conversations
  • looking at things in her room
  • going through her drawers or school bag
  • reading her diary
  • checking her email account
  • ‘friending’ or ‘following’ her on social network sites such as Facebook or Twitter
  • calling her mobile to check on her all the time.

Monitoring your child successfully

The best monitoring is low key, and is based on trust and staying connected with your child. When you have good everyday connections and communication, your child is more likely to share what he’s up to.

Here are some ideas for successful monitoring:

  • When your child starts a conversation, stop what you’re doing and actively listen. This sends the message that you’re interested in what’s going on in her life.
  • Getting to know your child’s friends and giving them a space in your home helps you keep in touch with your child’s friendships and relationships without always having to ask. Communicating with the parents of your child’s friends can help create a safe environment for your child and his friends, and help you keep track of their activities.
  • If you set up some expectations about what you need to know when your child is young, she’ll carry these expectations through as she gets older.
  • Sitting down to a family dinner as often as possible can be a good chance for everyone to chat about the day and what’s coming up.
  • With school, you can keep a general eye on school progress, homework and deadlines without micromanaging your child. This is easier to do when you have a good relationship with your child’s school and teachers.
  • If you set some ground rules about what your child can do in “free”, unsupervised time, you won’t have to look over his shoulder all the time.
  • Be aware of what your child is reading, watching on TV and doing on the computer or internet. Keeping TVs and networked computers in shared areas of your home helps. 

Try to avoid breaking your child’s trust or invading her privacy. But keep in mind that there might be times when you need to ask firmly for information - for example, “Where were you?” or “Where are you going?”

Handling breaches of trust

Your child might break your trust or misuse her privacy. For a one-off breach, you could withdraw a privilege - for example, take away some TV or computer time. You might also need to monitor your child more closely for a period while you rebuild trust.

For major breaches of trust, or breaches that keep happening, you and your child will need to rebuild trust over time. You might also need to use strategies such as:

  • “grounding” (banning social activities for a period of time)
  • withdrawing privileges
  • withholding non-essential transportation
  • stopping your child’s allowance 

You can try to negotiate practical ways your child can earn back your trust – for example, by showing you that he can be responsible for certain tasks over a period of time. Letting your child know that you still love him even though you’re disappointed in his behaviour will help him bounce back and learn from his mistakes.

Benefits of monitoring

Monitoring your child is worth the effort. Teenagers whose parents monitor them well:

  • are less likely to get involved in antisocial behaviour (for example, stealing or violence)
  • engage less often in underage drinking or problem substance use
  • start having sex later, and practise safer sex once they’re sexually active
  • are less likely to be depressed
  • are more likely to have high self-esteem
  • have better school outcomes and lower rates of school truancy and suspension
  • are more likely to bounce back from hard times

Trust is the key - teenagers value having their parents’ trust, and they don’t want to lose it. Research shows that young people who feel they’re trusted are more likely to stay connected to you, be open and honest with you, stick to the rules and to try to live up to your expectations.

Tip: Keeping the lines of communication open is important for your relationship with your adolescent child.

Too little monitoring can leave teenagers without the support they need to make safe decisions about behaviour and relationships. But too much monitoring can send the message you don’t trust your child. When you monitor your child in a trusting environment, you’re giving him what he needs if he’s going to learn how to make good decisions and behave responsibly.

© Raising Children Network Limited, reproduced with permission.

Resources & Links:

HealthLink BC: Tips for Parents of Teens

Last Updated: November 30, 2014