To Snoop or Not to Snoop?

At some point in time, most parents will have to deal with the “to snoop or not to snoop” dilemma. Most parents have an intuitive sense that they shouldn’t look through their children’s backpacks, browse their text messages, search their bedrooms, or read their diaries. Most will only violate privacy boundaries if they have a very good reason. For example, I recently saw a teenager who was brought for evaluation after Mom read her journal. By doing so, Mom discovered that Shannon had been sexually assaulted by a classmate. In my first session with this family, Mom explained that there had been sudden and dramatic changes in her daughter’s behavior and that Shannon had become uncharacteristically secretive. Led by a strong gut feeling that something important was wrong, Mom had acted against her usual practice and snooped. Thank goodness she had trusted her judgment.

As a general rule, I strongly discourage snooping. Increased concern about privacy in young adolescents coincides with the beginning of identity development. It is a normal and important part of this complex developmental phase called early adolescence. When kids start to put KEEP OUT signs on their doors and get angry at you for going into their rooms without permission, don’t despair. It doesn’t mean that they really have something to hide. This point was nicely illustrated by 8th grader, Rasheed.

There’s nothing in my phone that could incriminate me, but how would you feel if I read your texts? I will freak out if I find out that you read mine! – Rasheed, age 14

I met Rasheed toward the end of 8th grade. His father was a Marine on active duty in Afghanistan, his mother had recently lost her job, and his little sister had just been diagnosed with a chronic illness. Understandably, the household was characterized by a great deal of stress and worry, and Mom was concerned that some behavioral changes she had noticed in Rasheed signaled trouble. According to Mom, her once very open son all of a sudden had very little to say on any topic – school, sports, friends, etc. He was spending way too much time alone in his room and had started locking his bedroom door when he left the house. It had not been that long since Mom had to remind Rasheed to close his door when getting dressed and not to walk around the house in his boxers. How, Mom wanted to know, could he have gone from that kid to this kid overnight?

It may feel like these changes happen overnight, but that is not actually the case. The changes happen in ever so slight increments – little by little – until something truly noticeable happens. In the case of this family, it was Rasheed’s locked bedroom door that caught Mom’s notice. When I inquired about other common but more subtle changes, Mom reflected on recent months and was able to recognize that there had been earlier indicators that Rasheed was entering this new, more privacy-focused developmental phase. Yes, he had stopped telling her in great detail about his days at school. Yes, he had been less talkative in general. Yes, he had stopped doing his homework in the dining room, opting for his bedroom instead. Yes, he had become less tolerant of his little sister entering his room. Yes, he had been keeping his bedroom door closed much more often. Yes, he had been jumpy whenever Mom picked up his cellphone.

The discussion with Rasheed and his Mom about privacy felt like running in circles. Rasheed didn’t want his mom to pry into his private business which is why he was jumpy when he saw her holding his cellphone. Mom thought that Rasheed’s reaction when she innocently picked up his phone indicated that her son was hiding something. This, in turn, made her ask prying questions. Rasheed hated the “third degree” so refused to answer Mom’s questions. His secrecy reinforced her suspicion that Rasheed had something to hide which made her want to snoop. Her threats to snoop made Rasheed more guarded. See how that works?

Because of the numerous family stressors, Mom’s feelings of concern, and the fact that puberty is a high-risk time for the emergence of mental illnesses such as depression, I recommended an evaluation for Rasheed. He wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but he was cooperative. He denied all symptoms of psychiatric illness except for worry that occasionally interfered with his concentration. He elaborated that he worried about his father’s safety while deployed, the family’s finances since Mom was laid off from her job as a Philadelphia school teacher, and his little sister’s health and ability to stick with a strict gluten-free diet. None of these worries were excessive or unreasonable given the current realities for this family.

Teachers reported no changes in Rasheed’s behavior and only occasional missing homework assignments. He was maintaining his grades and appeared to be actively engaged in the social scene at his middle school. The school counselor was already keeping an eye on Rasheed because he knew that Rasheed had been very upset about his father’s current deployment. The counselor agreed to check in with Rasheed on a weekly basis to make sure that he was doing okay.

When I met with Rasheed and his mother to provide feedback about the evaluation, Mom was relieved. After a few snide comments directed at Mom such as “I told you I’m all right” and “You always have to have something to worry about,” Rasheed agreed to the weekly check-ins with the guidance counselor even though he thought this was “completely unnecessary.”

At the end of the feedback session, we spent some time talking about the “to snoop or not to snoop” conundrum. Mom insisted that she had not snooped to date and that she would continue to respect her son’s privacy. I asked if there were anything that Rasheed could do to make it easier for her to refrain from snooping. She stated that she would feel much less worried if Rasheed would share “something, anything” about his life. We talked about some of the things Rasheed would feel comfortable sharing (how basketball practices and games went and what tests and projects were coming up). He cautioned his mother that if she gives him the third degree, he will clam up. I encouraged Mom to create opportunities for connection – on car rides, over dinner, after Rasheed’s little sister was in bed – but not to pressure her son. I gave her a copy of my blog post, The Good Child, to read. I provided Mom with information about two support groups – one for spouses of military personnel on active deployment and one for parents of children with Celiac disease. I invited both Rasheed and Mom to contact me in the future if I could be of help. That was a couple of years ago, and I haven’t heard a word from this family since then. I suspect that Rasheed is doing just fine. I also suspect that Mom is remaining true to her promise to respect her son’s privacy.

As much as I discourage snooping, I will not go so far as to say that parents should never, under any circumstances, violate their children’s privacy. In fact, if I am working with a family at the time that a child enters early adolescence, I will often discuss “ground rules” regarding privacy. There are three, and they are simple, and they derive from my belief that parenting decisions should be guided by this principle:

Safety takes precedence over everything. After safety comes your relationship with your child. After safety and your relationship comes everything else.

For more on this guideline, see Safety, Relationship, Everything Else.

Now, here are the ground rules:

  1. Parents must do whatever is necessary to keep children safe, physically and emotionally. If there is a significant safety concern, parents may have to read text messages, search bedrooms, talk to peers, etc.
  2. Unless there are significant safety concerns, parents should respect privacy boundaries. The damage snooping causes to the parent-child relationship is rarely worth the payoff.
  3. Before allowing children to have cellphones or Facebook/Twitter/Instagram, etc. accounts, parents should discuss the rules around safety and civility and let children know that violations may result in lost privileges for a period of time.

In this post, I have shared two stories from my practice – one about a parent who made a good, well-reasoned decision to snoop and one about a parent who made a good, well-reasoned decision not to snoop. In the first instance, the teenaged girl was initially very angry at her mother, but she came to understand the reasons her mother violated her privacy and was ultimately glad that her mother did so. In the second instance, the teenaged boy felt that his mother’s efforts to pry were unjustified and he made it very clear that her behavior was making him less likely to open up. In this as in most parenting dilemmas, the “right” thing to do is not always evident. Hopefully, the examples and guidelines in this post will help parents approach the “to snoop or not to snoop” conundrum with mindfulness, respect, and integrity.

[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

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About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates (www.southamptonpsychiatric.com) which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
This entry was posted in High/Upper School, Middle/Junior High School, Young Adult and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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