How Much Privacy Should You Give Your Child?

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Parents want to trust their children, but they also want to make sure their kids are safe and responsible. So, how much privacy should you give your child?

Should I check my son’s Facebook?  Should I read my daughter’s journal? What’s my child doing on their phone?

Most parents have asked themselves these questions as they try to navigate the levels of privacy in their home. On one hand, parents want to show that they trust their children and respect their privacy, often thinking back to the days when their own parents violated their space. On the other hand, parents want information to make sure their children are safe, making good decisions, and acting like respectable humans.

So where is the line?

Clear Expectations and Open Communication

Whatever your decisions are related to privacy in your home, your expectations and rules need to be clearly communicated to everyone. If your child knows the rules, there should be no surprises.

If you snoop in secret or break promises you made about not to go into your child’s room, you will hurt your relationship with them. But if they know what the boundaries are ahead of time, it is up to them to make good choices. They might think you are strict, but you are also being very clear about what is expected.

“Kids also need to know their parents can talk about difficult topics and ultimately care about their well-being.”

Allow for Self-Expression

Most parents likely encourage their children to express their emotions and use positive coping skills when they are struggling. Some of these skills might include writing in a journal, creating stories, or playing with art.

In order to process emotions, sometimes we need an external outlet beyond our personal thoughts. We would not want to discourage this by needing to be overinvolved. These personal expressions, if kept private by their creator, should stay private. Meaning, if your child expresses themselves in a certain way and wants to keep it to themselves, let them.

Additionally, when parents do decide to look at these materials, they are doing it without all the information. It is very easy to misinterpret or put negative meaning on something that we don’t fully understand. Maybe getting it out helped them to make the right decision, or clarify their thinking. And isn’t that what you wanted them to do in the first place?

Defining What Is Not Private

Anything that is shared with another person or might significantly impact another person is not private. In some sense, once something moves beyond an individual, it is no longer private. This covers the area of most communications with other people including social media.

Parents want to trust their children, but they also want to make sure their kids are safe and responsible. So, how much privacy should you give your child?

If you are putting it out there for others, then that information is no longer a personal experience. If you set this expectation, your child will be well aware that what they say to others in any space might be seen or heard by their parents. In regard to their rooms, again anything that might violate rules of the household is not allowed. Therefore, if you suspect they are hiding cigarettes in their room, you have the responsibility to find out.

Privacy Is a Privilege

While the above definition might sound restrictive, it will not always be necessary. If your child is honest, communicates with you, and makes good decisions, there will not be many occasions when you feel it is necessary to check in on them. They have earned that privilege and they should be rewarded.

However, if there is a reason to believe your child is lying or participating in risky behaviors, it is your job as their parent to look into it. Ultimately, their behavior should directly relate to the amount of privacy they earn.

The Big Conversations

If you are concerned about your child’s behavior, remember that checking into it might be one step, but there is a much bigger conversation that needs to be had. Your child will likely try to turn the tables and make these conversations more about the violation of their privacy rather than their own behavior. Kids know how to make their parents feel really guilty when they need to.

“Whatever your decisions are related to privacy in your home, your expectations and rules need to be clearly communicated to everyone.”

But remember, you already told them what your rules and expectations were. You already told them what is considered private and not private. You will have to steer the conversation back to their behavior. Even if you are fuming about what you found, stay calm and have a conversation. Yelling and screaming will not get you anywhere.

Your child has to know you are serious about the rules but also able to handle your own emotions. Kids also need to know their parents can talk about difficult topics and ultimately care about their well-being. Think about the best way you can express this.

Click here to read more articles by Dr. Andrea Umbach!



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Dr. Andrea Umbach
Dr. Andrea Umbach is a licensed psychologist at Southeast Psych, Southpark. She specializes in treating individuals with anxiety, OCD, hoarding, and trichotillomania. She practices from a cognitive-behavioral approach focused on increasing flexibility in thinking and making adaptive behavior changes. Dr. Umbach is the author of "Conquer Your Fears and Phobias for Teens" and founder of the Charlotte Anxiety Consortium.

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