Do Children have a Right to Privacy?

The schoolbag was sitting on the kitchen counter. Not a typical occurrence. Usually it’s on the floor in the hall! Ellie wasn’t sure what prompted her but she had a strong urge to look inside. She didn’t really suspect anything. Oh, John had his problems – inconsistent schoolwork, increased moodiness – but that seemed mostly to be the normal impact of adolescence. “He’s really a good kid.”, she thought. “I shouldn’t be doing this.” But Ellie reached in anyway.

Parents often struggle with the boundaries of their children’s privacy. What is acceptable given the responsibility for your child’s health and welfare? When a mother is cleaning a child’s room or putting away some clothing, the temptation to look at that crumpled stack of school papers or flip through an unlocked diary or poke around the closet can be too strong to resist. Especially if there’s any cause for concern. And what do you do if you actually find something? Will you destroy your child’s trust if you admit to an invasion of privacy?

These are tough questions. I believe it is important to respect a child’s right to privacy but only up to a point. Your child’s safety is always the primary issue. Of course, the difficulty is trying to determine if your child’s health or survival is actually at risk. In these times, it’s almost too easy to become convinced that your child is on drugs or depressed and/or suicidal. Research suggests that one of every four adolescents will experience a significant depression during their high school years. At least half of all adolescents will have had significant experience with drugs during their high school years.

Therefore, you need to be educated about the signs of substance abuse or depression such as marked changes in behavior or mood and/or onset of sleeping or eating problems. Many health professionals and hospitals have brochures with more information about these topics. Schools and places of worship frequently offer lectures on these subjects. Learn as much as you can so you can recognize the serious problem and not be accusing your child when it is age-appropriate behavior. One of the best ways to manage this is to spend time alone with your child. This will provide opportunities for your child to share, when he or she is ready, what is actually going on. Remember, teens are scared and they will want to talk to you if they can believe you will really listen and not judge them harshly.

This brings us back to the issue of privacy. Teens retreat from the family circle. That is normal. They want special space, usually their bedroom, that will reflect their moods, interests, and search for a sense of identity. Parents need to set some guidelines up front. Tell your child his privacy will be respected unless his behavior strongly suggests there is a serious problem which he is denying. Open communication is always the priority. But, if there are strong signs of a substance abuse problem, all bets are off. I’ve had parents literally remove the door to their child’s bedroom when it was clear that the child was involved with drugs and kept denying it.

So, what happens when children appear to leave an “invitation” to look? A child struggling with a problem may very well leave clues, usually subconsciously, wanting help but being unable to openly ask for it. If a teenager is really trying to hide something, they certainly can do so. Therefore, I am always suspicious when something is left in open view that tempts a parent to peek. I think the child is asking you to look. That is very different from a parent just going through a child’s things and is certainly different from reading a diary that has been kept out of sight or locked.

If you do discover something important enough to warrant discussion (common examples are school warnings, birth control devices, shoplifted items such as CDs or cosmetics, and drug paraphernalia), try to avoid an explosion or a lecture. I recommend focusing on the communication issue first. “Why were you unable to talk to us about this issue?” The primary goal is to open up the sharing of concerns and to improve the trust. If you only come down on the child, then her worst fears are realized and she’s even less likely to talk to you the next time there’s a problem. That doesn’t mean you ignore consequences if the child has done something wrong. It should just be the second step in the process.

Ellie found a package of condoms in John’s schoolbag. It was decided that a low-key discussion should take place without a lecture about the risks of teenage sex. Instead the parents just empathized about how adolescent sexuality is such a difficult and scary issue, especially with concerns about AIDS. They also noted how different it is from when they were kids; everything is so much more out in the open and there seems to be more pressure on teens to “know” about sex. They asked why John hadn’t expressed any concerns and emphasized the importance of being able to talk about this.

John, of course, denied the condoms were his. Seems like every kid only carries cigarettes, condoms, or pot for their friends, NEVER for themselves! There was a small expression of anger at his mother’s violation of privacy, but less than expected. Days later, John acknowledged his surprise that his parents didn’t get so upset and didn’t take the condoms away. Then, he was able to talk to his mother about some of the pressure he was experiencing in the relationship with his girlfriend. One small victory in the quest for parent-child trust.