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Balancing Privacy and Safety for your Teen


January 19, 2024 Parent-Child Relationship


Par Simon Aubin

As parents, we all want to protect our children. This desire to protect can be very strong when faced with our teenagers' behavior, as they explore their identity through new activities, develop new friendships, and assert their independence loud and clear. In this context, finding the right balance between respecting teenagers' privacy and ensuring their safety can seem impossible. So how do we do it?

Understanding teenagers' need for privacy and intimacy

Adolescence is a time when young people are seeking to define who they are and to detach themselves from parental influence. It's normal for this to express itself in a heightened need for intimacy and privacy. Adolescents no longer wish to share all the details of their relationships, experiences, and activities with their parents, sometimes for fear of reprisal, judgment, or punishment.  They want to maintain their secret space, away from the prying eyes of their parents. It's a sacred space where they can reflect, learn about their own limits, and develop their autonomy.

Privacy is fundamental to a teenager's healthy development. 

What are the consequences of not respecting their privacy?

By invading or seeking to take control of this space, we risk losing their trust and compromising their ability to make autonomous decisions. However, this doesn't mean we have to set aside our protective role. It's essential to understand and respect this intimacy, while continuing to ensure our teens' safety.

For example, it can be very tempting to go snooping around our teenager's bedroom in the hope of finding certain information under the guise of looking out for their safety.  

“The room is such a mess, I'm going to clean it up a bit, and who knows, maybe stick my nose in where I shouldn't? Am I going to find unreturned homework, diary entries about bullying, drugs, condoms?  And if so, what am I going to do with such information?  Pretend it never happened? Confront them? Confiscate it? Give them subtle messages?”

Before acting, it's important to think about the consequences our actions could have on the trust and respect in your relationship.  Going into your teenager's room is a direct intrusion into their private space. It can lead to feelings of frustration, anger, and betrayal.

What compromises can be made to respect their privacy?

Rather than opting for an invasive approach, it is recommended to engage in a discussion about respecting personal boundaries. Here are some compromises and ideas to adopt to respect your teen's space:

•    Set clear rules regarding room cleanliness and housekeeping times

•    Knock when the door is closed

•    Identify places with your teen where you won't go searching

•    Be careful about what you share with the rest of the family about your teen.  Make sure you have their consent before sharing the information.

•    Avoid eavesdropping on phone conversations 

Open communication

The key lies in open communication and maintaining an honest dialogue with our teenagers. Rather than behaving intrusively or imposing an overly strict framework that leaves little room for privacy, try to explain the reasons behind our concerns and find compromises that respect both their need for privacy and our responsibilities as parents. 

For example, discuss when they can leave the house, where they can go and with whom, your positions on various issues concerning drinking or sexuality, while taking into account their own concerns and suggestions. This strengthens the bond of trust and shows that we're there to support them, even when it comes to sensitive issues.

Online privacy and security

The question of privacy and security also takes on particular importance when it comes to everything that happens online, in the virtual lives of teenagers. Teens are often present on social networks and online platforms, creating a virtual space where they can interact with their peers, express themselves without constraint, and be exposed to all kinds of content. 

The lure of delving into a teenager's cell phone to find out what they're saying, doing, and posting can be powerful. It's sensitive territory that requires a delicate approach. 

Cell phones and digital life are often just as much an extension of our young people's privacy bubble as their backpacks, bedrooms or diaries.

Rather than secretly checking their messages and applications, start an open conversation about responsible cell phone use. Discuss the risks of social networking, inappropriate messages, and sharing personal information online. By encouraging transparent communication, you create a space where your teen feels comfortable sharing concerns without fear of invasion of privacy.

If your child doesn't yet have a cell phone, it's a good idea to draw up a user contract when they have access to one. By establishing in advance the rules on who has access to accounts, password sharing, what they can use it for, geolocation, etc., you can work together to establish guidelines that both ensure their safety and enable the development of their autonomy.

The benefits of finding balance 

It's natural to be tempted to keep a close eye on our teens' every move, whether in person or online. The transition from childhood to adolescence brings with it its share of novelty and insecurity, but it's essential to recognize and respect their boundaries, while remaining alert to signs of distress or risky behavior. 

If you're worried, talk to your child first. Express your concern and listen to your child's point of view. This trust between parent and teenager is the basis of a healthy relationship. If our teenagers know that they can count on us to support them when they experience a difficulty or setback, even when we don't agree with their choices or behaviors, this will boost their self-esteem and foster an environment where they feel safe to grow and live out their experiences.

In order to discuss some of the thornier topics with your teen, here are some interesting links:

•    Talking about sex 

•    Talking about drugs

References (in French)

Radio-Canada, Maintenir un lien avec son « ado » malgré son besoin d’autonomie et d’intimité
Tables d'actions préventives jeunesse, Ado 101 : guide pour les parents et l’entourage