Teenagers and Privacy

As our children turn into teens, the need for privacy increases and doors close. How should we handle this?
By Glynis Horning

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Amusement mixed with wistfulness last year when my 13-year-old broke off in mid conversation as we reached his room, and politely but firmly closed the door behind him. “Please mom,” he said from the other side, “I need to change now and do some stuff.”
 
This, I knew from his 17-year-old brother, was the start of the final phase of growing up. Growing into his own person. And growing apart from me… After the glory days of sharing, begun snugly in the womb when even our most basic body systems were inextricably linked, he was cutting loose – closing the door on childhood, and to a degree on me.
 
For all the pangs and problems it can cause parents, the closed bedroom door signals a need for privacy that is not just normal, but crucial for teens, says psychologist Dr Peter Marshall, author of Now I Know Why Tigers Eat Their Young (Whitecap Books). “They’re not just goofing off,” he explains. “They spend a large part of their time just thinking about things, trying to figure out who they are, who they want to become. There’s a lot of work for them to do, and they need some space to do it.”
 
Besides, as sociology professor Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting (Penguin), puts it: “There are moments in everyone’s life when you feel uncomfortable with the world and you want to be on your own. You might wish to do things that would be embarrassing in front of others, like examining parts of your body.” When teens shut the door or tell you to go away there’s no point being hurt, he says: “You should respect this, and knock on the door before going in.”
 
It’s when parents just don’t get it, and keep pushing, that trouble comes. “Teens can get really resentful and stop communicating with you,” warns psychologist Gael Lindenfield, author of Confident Teens: How to Raise a Positive, Confident and Happy Teenager (Thorsons).
 
So, should we worry?
 
“Teens’ need for privacy and time alone does not necessarily mean they have something to hide,” says human-development specialist Kelly Warzinik, co-author of Family Life in 20th-Century America (Greenwood). “They need to be allowed to make choices and learn from their mistakes. What they do not need, however, is complete freedom and privacy.” Teens must still be monitored to make sure they are safe.
 
There’s a fine line between monitoring teens and respecting privacy. “Teens often complain that their parents interfere with their independence,” Warzinik says, “but they also appreciate their parents’ concern.”
 
Johannesburg counselling psychologist Karin Steyn sees this often in her practice. “One girl told me she thought her parents didn’t love her. When I asked why, she said they didn’t care if her room was a mess or what she did in there or in her life; they let her do whatever she wanted. Children need boundaries to feel cared for and secure.”
 
Messing with their mess
 
By closing their doors, teens are creating a space “to learn the art of taking control of life for themselves and being responsible,” says Steyn. “Their room is their sanctuary, an extension of themselves, but many parents think because it’s in their house, it’s their space. They’re bothered that if it’s a mess guests may see this and think them bad parents.”
 
A more valid reason for teens to keep their room tidy, and one she advises explaining to them, is that their room is a mental projection of what goes on in their heads. “It’s okay for it to be a bit messy, but they should be expected to make their bed, keep it clean and put clothes in the wash basket, or their lives too will be a mess.” But don’t rearrange a messy room, says Steyn. “Just make suggestions – then let them learn from consequences, like having nothing clean to wear.”
 
Of greater concern to most parents than the appearance of teens’ rooms, however, is what they may get up to there. “This has everything to do with the relationship you’ve created with your children from the time they were babies,” she says. “If you’ve given them strong values and clear boundaries, and established mutual respect and trust, you should be fine.”
 
Earning trust
 
Trust is always earned, says Steyn. “There are parents who say they’d never invade their children’s privacy. But I’ve also seen a mother whose son committed suicide. Later she found references to suicide in his diary. She told me if she could do things over, she’d have read it earlier.”
 
While Steyn wouldn’t condone this, she sympathises with her, and with a father who confided recently that he too had gone through a child’s diary. “He felt bad, but she was in puberty, temperamental, and experimenting with relationships, and she’d stopped communicating with him. He was worried.”
 
It’s the job of parents to find out what’s happening in their children’s lives, especially if they stop communicating or you pick up warning signs of depression or self-destructive behaviour, Steyn says. “Most teens tell me ‘I try to speak to my parents but they don’t understand me’. Your attitude is crucial.” She suggests saying, “I may have my own beliefs, but I’m open to yours and others. I respect that you are your own person, but I need to tell you why I feel differently.”
 
Parents harp on about wishing children had open doors, she adds, “But what it often comes down to is parents having open minds. If yours is open enough for them to feel able to come and talk to you about anything, and you keep working at that relationship, showing a genuine interest in them and their friends, likes and dislikes, many problems will simply not arise or will be dealt with before they amount to anything.”
 
A right to snoop?
 
If, however, in spite of your best attempts to speak to your teen, they remain withdrawn and uncommunicative, and there are other warning signs, you have not only the right but the responsibility to intrude on their space, says Durban counselling psychologist Akashni Maharaj. Just don’t sneak in – tell them you are doing it: “I’m worried about you and as your mother I’m still responsible for you. I’m going to have to look in your bedroom.” Then go in and do it together. “This can be viewed as a reciprocal show of trust, caring and understanding,” Maharaj says. “Rather than having your action questioned and seen as invasive, you open the door both literally and figuratively to your teen’s world. This can strengthen rather than destroy your relationship.”
 
Steyn’s mother (a fellow psychologist) set the tone for what Steyn often advises parents when it comes to cigarettes or alcohol. “Mom smelt in my room that I’d been smoking. She sat down next to me and said firmly: ‘If you want to mess up your lungs, it’s your decision. But you’re not doing it with my permission or where I can smell it. Smoking is not a healthy, responsible thing to do’.” Steyn continued to experiment with cigarettes, “But I knew she was right so it didn’t last.”
 
Exploding in anger and telling teens you forbid them to do things is invariably futile. Unless they buy into your reasoning they will often continue elsewhere and be more reluctant to turn to you in future.
 
Talking ’bout sex, baby!
 
Rising sexuality and social expectations of how they should handle this are behind much teen angst and experimentation behind closed doors. “Masturbation is perfectly natural, and just one reason to always knock,” says Steyn. “Walking in on a private moment can be difficult for them, especially if your attitude is outrage or fury. So many of the issues around guilt and sexuality that we see in adults stem from teen experiences like that. They need to be able to do things without fear of being judged or condemned.”
 
But when it comes to having friends of the opposite sex behind closed doors, be guided by your own values, and again make these clear, she says. “Tell them ‘I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of your wanting to be a sexual being at this stage. I don’t think you’re emotionally ready, and your studies should be your priority if you want to succeed in life’.”
 
The net effect
 
The biggest sexual danger behind closed teen doors today, however, comes from online sex sites and social networking – even if teens are not actively looking for it. “Developmentally, adolescence is when teens naturally hunt for information that helps satiate their interest in better understanding changes to themselves and the opposite sex,” says Maharaj. “When doors shut, open communication with your teens about sexuality and how vulnerable they are to predators online is vital.”
 
She advises keeping computers in family rooms, not teen’s bedrooms. If necessary, restrict them to a phone without internet access. A survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project showed 32 percent of online teens (43 percent of social-networking ones) have been contacted online by strangers and 17 percent of online teens (31 percent of social networking ones) have “friends” on their social network profile that they’ve never met in person. British research shows more than one in three teen girls have had sexually explicit messages, pictures or videos on their cell phones.
 
“Make your home a ‘safe to talk’ zone where your child who is online can talk to you about their online friends and topics doing the rounds online,” advises Maharaj. “Rather than getting angry and removing privileges, become part of their world. This gives an ideal opportunity for having healthy discussions about sensitive and potentially dangerous issues they may become privy to.”    
 
Again, it’s important that teens know you trust them, so if you plan to check their emails or smses, tell them you will be doing it, for their protection. This can serve as a deterrent, and be welcome leverage against pressure from friends to participate in activities like sexting that they themselves don’t feel ready for. You can also use filters, by subscribing to Net Nanny, SurfWatch, CyberPatrol or CYBERsitter. You can even make your membership of social networking sites like MXit a proviso of their joining.
 
Just don’t be tempted to be their “friend” outside of these sites, cautions Steyn. “More than ever once doors close, your teen needs you as a parent, not a friend.” 
 
Keep eyes open when doors close
Without being unduly suspicious, stay alert to signs of the following:
 
post traumatic stress
(This can manifest after internet bullying or coercing)
 
  • difficulty sleeping
  • difficulty concentrating
  •  irritability
  • hypervigilence
  • exaggerated startle response
 
depression
 
  • long periods alone in
  • their room
  • withdrawal
  • unusual moodiness
  • changes in eating patterns
  • changes in sleeping patterns
  • neglect of appearance
  • falling grades
 
huffing
(Inhaling chemical vapours from household products for a euphoric effect)
 
  • slurred speech
  • chemical smell on breath
  • runny, red nose
  • sores around nose and mouth
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
 
substance abuse
as above, plus:
 
  • bloodshot eyes, enlarged or reduced pupils
  • sudden use of incense in their room, mouthwash or mints
 
choking game
(Chasing a euphoric or erotic high by cutting blood flow to the brain)
 
  • disorientation after being alone in their room
  • increased irritability or hostility
  • marks on their neck
  • frequent headaches
  • bloodshot eyes
  • bleeding spots under facial skin
  • unexplained scarves, cords, belts or plastic bags, especially tied to the furniture
 
If you notice any of these, keep calm. Tell your teen what you’ve seen, that you are concerned because you love them, and that you want to help. If they still won’t open up to you, take them to a psychologist or counsellor.
 

For parenting advice contact Famsa: 031 202 8987, 021 447 7951 or the Family Life Centre: 011 788 4784. For substance abuse advice, contact SANCA: 031 303 2202/202 2274, 011 482 1070 or 021 945 4080. For depression advice, contact SADAG: 0800 567 567 or sms 31393

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