Is it ever okay to snoop on your teenagers?

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Is it okay to invade your teen's privacy by checking what they are doing online.
Is it okay to invade your teen's privacy by checking what they are doing online.

When it comes to the safety of your children, what boundaries should you have? Is it okay to invade their privacy?

My kid isn't a kid any more

When your child has stopped obsessing over Paw Patrol and wants to watch the latest TikTok videos and complete challenges, it can be a bit of a shock to the system.

"The adolescent years are a time where we cement our separation from our parents and turn towards our peer groups for support and belonging. We are starting to establish our future social networks," says Vincenzo Sinisi, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst from Cape Town.

"Parents often find this process frightening as they are all too aware that adolescent children easily overestimate their abilities and so are vulnerable. Still, this is an important developmental step and should be supported."

Set appropriate boundaries

The way you react to and engage with your child when, and even before, this starts happening is very important. It helps them grow and learn how to set boundaries; whether they are romantic, professional or platonic.

Sinisi said respecting your child's privacy and not involving them in adult personal manners, such as couple conflicts, helps them learn appropriate behaviour. 

"But, while privacy is something parents need to take seriously, parents are also ultimately responsible for the well-being of their children. The saying goes, bigger children bring bigger problems," continues Sinisi.

"Adolescents do get themselves into dangerous situations that they occasionally require rescuing from. Some of these situations place them at risk of physical, serious emotional, or grave reputational harm. When a parent suspects something of this nature, they become obliged to intervene, even at the expense of privacy," he says.

Make sure you're invading their privacy for the right reasons. While you want to protect your relationship with your child, you also need to make sure that your child is safe.

Sinisi says to acknowledge that breach in privacy and perhaps their humiliation, let them feel hurt and hopefully, in time, they will see that it was done with care.

"Care" might also be subjective and parents need to make sure it is completely necessary to invade the child's privacy and break the child's trust before doing so. It's not meant to control the child.

Speak to friends or professionals and research before you jump in and risk damaging the relationship permanently. There are instances where keeping tabs on your kids is not a breach of privacy, according to Sinisi.

If they're old enough and mature enough to have a social media profile, then whatever is public you should be able to follow – even if they're not keen on it.

What are healthy boundaries around your child's access to the internet and social media?

"This question assumes children should have access to social media and I'm not sure that they should," says Sinisi.

Here's a guideline to help you decide if your child should be given access to these things: 

With adolescents, boundaries should be individualised to reflect their level of development and maturity. Younger children need constant supervision and monitoring. Where possible, be open and clear about what you consider mostly private and what you monitor.

READ | Can the school blacklist me for not paying school fees?

"I believe children should develop in the real world, by interacting with real people, in real social situations and physical activities," says Sinisi. 

"These are known to promote emotional, social, and physical development. Some exposure to social media is probably fine as long as it is limited and regulated along with all the other screen time generally."

"You want your presence to help them internalise values and limits that they haven't yet managed to take on board completely on their own," adds Sinisi.

How do you deal about the fallout when your teen feels hard done by, even if the interference was necessary?

Validation. Validate your child in the child's anger and emotions. It's hard but necessary. Sinisi gives the example of saying: "I can see you are angry and I hear you when you say you feel violated. It's because I read messages that were between you and friends of yours. Of course, you are furious. I was concerned for your safety and I prioritise your safety over your privacy.

But he warns: "Don't expect this to make the anger go away."

"It's okay for teens to be angry with us as parents. Also, there is no need to, or point in, trying to show them how wrong they are while they are angry. Wait for them to calm down and try to discuss it then."

The same applies to us as parents. Strike when the iron is cold. Where possible, wait until everyone is calm.

Vincenzo Sinisi is a qualified psychoanalyst, group analyst and clinical psychologist in Kenilworth, Cape Town. Visit his website for contact details.

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