Should Parents Spy on Their Children and Teens?

Every once in a while in my psychotherapy practice, a parent with whom I work “discovers” that their teenager is using drugs. This awareness usually comes as a result of sleuthing.

Sometimes the outcome is positive: The parent confronts the teen and usually treatment or drug rehabilitation follows. And sometimes, the result is feelings of betrayal of trust on both sides. The parent feels that the teen can’t be trusted; the teen is usually furious over having been found out.

The question of whether parents should “spy” on their children is not part of the operating manual for raising today’s digitally connected generation. And it’s not an entirely new dilemma. Even before the increase of technology, Facebook, cell phones, and instant messaging, there were diaries hidden in drawers. And shoeboxes of contraband stored in closet corners. And even then, parents and their children experienced conflict.

In a recent interview I did with CBS News, I was asked what advice I might give parents to help them deal with their worries about their kids. Not all the advice I provided got into the segment. So, I decided to share what I would have communicated had there been enough time.

Here are some things to consider about spying on your children:

  • Every day we read, watch and hear about how dangerous the world seems to have become. Parents are very worried about how to protect their children from what they see as a very dangerous world, e.g., Internet crime, bullying, suicide, sexual predators, social networking sites and drug abuse.
  • The cornerstone of the parent-child relationship rests on a foundation of trust. Nevertheless, there are times when parents need to be able to verify that trust, especially when they suspect their teens may be involved in dangerous activities or unaware of the dangers they face.
  • One of the toughest issues for parents is trying to strike a balance between monitoring their kid’s safety while also providing them with opportunities to learn from their experiences and make wise choices.
  • Secretly installed “spyware” can be a problem because children and teens are often miles ahead of their parents technically. Despite sophisticated monitoring equipment, kids can outsmart the very technology that they perceive as entrapping them.
  • Young people’s brains are not fully matured, and kids tend to minimize risks and feel invincible. You need to help your children perceive danger accurately by teaching them the appropriate and realistic risks both in real life and online.
  • Teenage behavior requires boundaries and monitoring by responsible adults. Parents need to stay informed of their teen’s activities and friends. Laws exist to define an age for drinking alcohol and an age for a driver’s license, but there is no agreed-upon date when kids can safely go online solo.

So what can a responsible parent to do regarding “spying”?

  • There is no substitute for having a good relationship with your children at any age. You are not their peers, and you need to set a clear example of maturity and leadership. Be interested in your teens’ lives, offer sound advice and keep the flow of communication open.
  • Keep your eyes and ears open. This will help you be better able to spot a problem early on.
  • If you are determined to use one of the surveillance monitoring programs, give your kids a heads-up and tell them what you are doing. Talk to them about why you are adding these programs. You could say something like: “We are very concerned about your safety and well being. From time-to-time, we will be monitoring the Internet with a goal of keeping you and the rest of our family safe. We are telling you this so there are no surprises. You need to be aware that there are a lot of creepy adults posing as children who target kids, and we want to make sure that you don’t give put yourself at risk.” This is one of the ways a parent can monitor their children’s activities, but feel less sneaky ahout the process.
  • Set very clear expectations and boundaries about what you expect from your children. They may appear to not listen and turn you off, but they are listening and do benefit from clear limits.
  • Connect with other parents in your community and talk to others about responsible ways to keep your kids safe. Attend parent association meetings in the schools, like the PTA. Parents and schools working together help keep kids safe from the dangers of the times we live in.

Remember that you don’t have to be James Bond to adequately protect your kids. Communicate freely, maintain clear values about safety and help them to accurately appraise danger. After all, you need to share the worry with them. They too need to be concerned about their well-being.