Teenagers are in a stage of life that entails high growth and a lot of personal development and investigation. Time on their own is absolutely essential for them to navigate this time in a healthy way and to get to know themsleves and their bodies, and to get to trust their own decision making and develop independence.
Adolescence is a time of breaking away from the parents in order to foster independence and an ability to cope in the world without you. Teenagers need some space to figure things out for themselves, and time just to think and introspect.
This does not mean that you leave them alone entirely and disconnect. Teenagers are still experiencing a lot of brain growth which affects their ability to make good decisions and often leads to impulsive behaviour and excessive risk taking. In other words, they still need your guidance, but they need you more as a mentor than a dictator!
Think of healthy boundaries with your teens as you would healthy boundaries in any of your relationships. You wouldn’t go digging through a friend’s room or reading their diary unless you were really, genuinely concerned for their safety and wellbeing.
If you keep an open channel of communication with your teens, show a real interest in their lives, and have a strong, respectful bond with them then you will find less need to interfere. Children who are treated with respect will also be more likely to respect you and your rules and guidelines. You need boundaries from both sides, but they need to be healthy boundaries.
Unhealthy boundaries on the one hand can be parents who interefere too much in their teens lives – who enter their rooms without knocking, who check in on them hourly via phone, who ask too many questions. On the other side of the scale, unhealthy boundaries can be parents who are too removed – who never ask any questions, who appear to show no interest in their teens lives, or alternatively who see themselves as a friend rather than a mentor (who will smoke and drink with their teens and share inappropriate emotional content).
The causes of unhealthy boundaries on either end of the scale are usually due to relationships that are not well formed. Parents who connect with their kids on a real, respectful level rarely have inappropriate boundaries as they communicate clearly with their teens and thereby catch problems before they develop.
Teens should have as much privacy as they need provided that it is not infringing on their safety and wellbeing, and is balanced by time connecting with the rest of the family. Make sure that you have a daily time to connect with your teenager – have family mealtimes, go for a daily walk together, etc.
Other than serious issues like drugs, the only real danger of teens spending a lot of time alone in their rooms is tied into technology. This can be overcome by keeping any devices where you can connect to the Internet in a communal space in the house, or by having a strictly open door policy with regards to technology (ie you need to keep the door open if you are connecting to the Internet). It is also worth discussing these issues with your teens and making them aware of their vulnerability online and the reasons that you are concerned for their safety so that they can be more aware themselves. Again, open communication is key.
If you are concerned that your child may be depressed, suicidal, or have a drug or eating disorder for example, and you feel that you need to invade your teen’s privacy for their own safety, it is still best to consult your teen first. Explain that you will be going through his/her room or personal belongings, and even do this together. Make it very clear that you are concerned and only doing this for their wellbeing. If they have nothing to hide, they should be ok with this. If they do have something to hide, they will appreciate your care in the long run.
Involve your teens in the rules and decision making of your household. They are much more likely to abide by rules that they have helped to set and that they understand the reasons behind.
You win the trust of a child like you win the trust of anyone – by being trustworthy. Treat your children like whole people who deserve respect, understanding and trust themselves. Children, like all people, tend to live up (or down) to our expectations of them. Discuss your expectations with them and make sure these are realistic. Let them know that you trust them to meet these as you know how competent they are (and then act accordingly). When things go wrong (and they will from time to time) treat this not as a failure to be punished, but as an opportunity to connect and find out what is going on.
The solution to dealing with teen privacy is trust, open communication, and respect. Every family will have different guidelines, rules and policies with regards to the privacy of their teens. If you keep an open and respectful line of communication between you then you will find solutions that work for everyone and where the teens do not feel the need to rebel against what they perceive to be unfair restrictions.