Invading your teen's privacy leads to conflict: Is that a good thing?

http://www.sxc.hu/profile/zenpixelParenting teenagers can be a tough job. Let’s face it, BEING a teenager can also be tough! The relationship between parents and teens can change drastically as the adolescents get older – although this change usually isn’t negative, it isn’t always easy to find rules and expectations that are agreeable to both parents and teens. Parents often fear that their teens will make poor decisions if they’re given too much independence, but youth need to be allowed to make those decisions in order to develop their skills and become adults. Parents walk a tightrope between loosening their rules and protecting their kids. This sometimes leads to a dilemma: Should a parent invade their teen’s privacy or respect it? You might get different answers depending on whether you ask the parent or the teen!

A study published in the August issue of the Journal of Family Psychology looked at how parents and teenagers “coordinate” privacy, and the relationship between privacy violations and conflict. Three hundred and nine two-parent families with children between 11 and 15 years of age were followed for three years. The youth provided information about perceived privacy violations by their parents, and both the youth and the parents completed questionnaires rating adolescent-parent conflict.

The findings indicated that the link between the perception of invasions of privacy and conflict between teens and parents goes both ways. Parents in families with more conflict were more likely to be seen by their teens as invasive, and privacy violations were linked to increased conflict over time in a negative cycle. Not too surprising, right? What surprised me was that the researchers interpreted invasion of privacy and the resulting conflict as a good thing! Their reasoning was that arguments about privacy put parents’ and teens’ expectations about privacy on the table for negotiation. By bringing attention to differing expectations, conflict might lead to communication and problem-solving.

I don’t buy it.

They’re right that conflict can bring issues about differing expectations and increasing independence to light. But they fail to account for trust (or lack thereof) and the quality of the relationship between teens and their parents. In my opinion, trust is important in a relationship. If your teenager believes that you’re invading his or her privacy, that sounds like a situation in which trust is limited. Maybe conflict can lead to new boundaries and agreement about rules, but does it have to go that far? The researchers seem to believe that, unless they’re fighting about it with their teens, parents won’t talk about their expectations.

Talking is EXACTLY what parents should do. And it doesn’t have to take an argument to get there. In any close relationship, there’s a tendency to believe that you know what the other person thinks without asking them. Sometimes you’re right. In the case of teens’ and parents’ boundaries around privacy, either or both of them might be wrong. As a parent, you know your teen is growing up; it’s probably worth negotiating some guidelines so everyone knows what to expect. Your child’s bedtime has probably changed over the years – did that require conflict to occur? Maybe, but I think it’s just as likely that parents realize their children’s need for sleep changes as they get older, and they respond to the change. The need for privacy changes too.

You’re allowed to talk to your kids about what you expect and why you believe it’s reasonable. Listen to their ideas – you might be able to agree to some guidelines that allow them some more independence without putting them in danger. And maybe you’ll avoid some arguments at the same time!

You can read the Journal of Family Psychology study here.

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2 Responses to Invading your teen's privacy leads to conflict: Is that a good thing?
  1. Anatomy of Three Things (Episode 75)
    February 20, 2010 | 8:53 am

    […] What are the possible consequences of parent-teen conflict over privacy? […]

  2. […] The takeaway might be that, for typically-developing teens, 24-7 monitoring might not have the desired effect of reducing negative behaviour – and parents might come to know less about what really happens in their children’s lives than those who are less strict but more warm. In addition, monitoring might have the unintended effect of increasing conflict between parents and … […]