Is Snooping on Teenagers Ever O.K.?

So, if parents suspect that their teenager might be in trouble, what should they do?

The prevailing wisdom suggests a straightforward solution: Start by asking. Though teenagers are usually tight-lipped about topics they deem personal, such as how they spend their free time or allowance, research on parent-adolescent communication shows that teenagers believe their parents do have the right to know about choices that might be unhealthy or unsafe, such as smoking or drinking.

However, according to Judith Smetana, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, “This finding comes with a twist: If kids are already involved in risky behavior, they tend not to tell their parents.” In such situations, teenagers said they feared that their parents would respond with disapproval, punishment or both. Accordingly, Dr. Smetana suggests that we might preface our questions about risky behavior with the reassurance that, “We’re not going to get mad and you’re not going to get in trouble. We just want to know that you are O.K.”

If things are not O.K. — perhaps the teenager owns up to harrowing weekend activities — at least the problem is out in the open and the parents have made clear their stance of aiming to shield the adolescent from harm rather than dish out discipline.

And parents of teenagers should settle in for some ongoing negotiations. Even when all is well, parents and teenagers routinely disagree about what should be considered private.

“Adolescents consistently think that they should have more autonomy than their parents think they should have,” Dr. Smetana said. “And just when parents have worked one thing through,” she adds, “they will find that there’s a new topic to hash out because teenagers’ autonomy is always increasing.”

As Dr. Hawk advises parents, “Keep in mind that you are not going to get past adolescence without having some kind of conflict about privacy.” To that I would add that raising teenagers invariably comes with a measure of anxiety, especially when children who used to share themselves with us warmly and freely come to seem distant or inscrutable.

If that anxiety becomes overwhelming and our efforts to communicate fail to bring clarity, might snooping ever be warranted? According to Dr. Hawk, “If done at all, it should be reserved for extreme circumstances when there is really no other recourse. And parents should be prepared for adolescents to react very negatively, regardless of what is found.”

The impulse to snoop, like every other questionable parenting choice, almost always comes from a loving and protective place. Rather than giving into it too quickly, though, we might treat the urge to spy as a reminder to reflect on where we stand with our teenagers. Do we trust them, and do they trust us? If not, what steps could we take to arrive at a heartfelt yes?

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