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Note to Parents of Adolescent Kids: Stay Out if You Want "In"

My daughter is 4 years old, and has proven to very evasive when asked about her daily life at the Montessori she attends daily. A typical dinner conversation will go something like this:

Me: How was your day?

Her: Boring.

Me: What did you do? Who’d you play with?

Her: Nothing.

That pretty much captures it. And I will admit that it absolutely drives me crazy. Why? Because if the details of her private life are this elusive to me now, there’s no way I’m going to make it through her adolescent years without some intense therapy. I always want her (and our son) to feel comfortable confiding in me and keeping me informed about what’s going on in their lives --- something that will become increasingly important as they age and spend more and more time in their own private social worlds.

Researchers refer to this as parental knowledge, or the extent to which parents know about their kids’ friends and activities. Not surprisingly, parental knowledge is good --- parents who are more involved in and knowledgeable of their kids’ lives tend to have more well-adjusted kids (and have better relationships with them). But gaining that knowledge isn’t necessarily easy, especially as kids mature and develop a reasonable expectation of privacy and autonomy (which is also a mark of healthy behavior). In fact, as kids age, they can perceive the simple act of asking questions about their friends and activities as an invasion of privacy. So what’s a well-intentioned parent to do? According to a recent study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, the answer is fairly simple: back off.1 Because the more your push your kid to let you ‘in’ (e.g., via questions or looking through their room, for example), the more your kid is going to shut you out.

To come to this conclusion, the researchers asked almost 500 Dutch adolescents (about 13 years-old on average – older than my daughter, but a good indication of what’s on the horizon) to indicate how much they felt their parents invaded their privacy (e.g., “My parents butt into my private matters”). The kids and their parents also completed a measure of adolescent secrecy, indicating how much kids kept things from their parents (e.g., “Do you hide a lot from your parents about what you do during nights and weekends?”). For parents, the survey asked questions like, “Does your child keep a lot of secrets?” Finally, parents indicated their degree of parental knowledge (e.g., “Do you know which friends your child hangs out with in his or her free time?”). Importantly, the researchers had kids and parents complete these measures every year for three years, which allowed the researchers to determine whether perceptions of privacy invasion, for example, affect parental knowledge over time (otherwise, we run into the classic correlation-causation issue).

Parents’ knowledge about their kids’ behaviors decreased when kids thought their parents were invading their privacy. In other words, when kids felt their parents were prying, they kept more secrets from their parents and the parents learned less about what was going on in the kids’ lives. Mothers were especially attuned to this dynamic. Specifically, for moms, the pattern works like this: Kid feels mom invades privacy --> kid becomes more secretive --> mom picks up that kid is becoming more secretive --> mom feels she knows less about kid’s friends and activities (you can imagine the vicious cycle this creates). For dads, kids’ perceptions of privacy invasion led to dads feeling less knowledgeable --- but dads’ perceptions of their kids’ secrecy didn’t predict their parental knowledge. The researchers suggest dads (generally) aren’t as in tune to their kids’ secrecy attempts, but instead rely on moms to let them know what’s going on.  

What’s the take-home point of all this?  As the authors put it: “The results suggest that in absence of strong concerns, parents should avoid behaviors that clearly prompt feelings of invasion. Even when parents attempt to acquire information without children’s knowledge, such as by snooping or eavesdropping, youths are often aware of such behavior.” And when (not if) they figure it out, they’re just going to shut you out even more.

For me, what these results mean is that I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing --- asking my daughter about her day and life, but I’m not going to push it. By asking, I maintain a steady expectation that “Dad always asks me about my day.” Thus, maybe, just maybe, when I ask her about her first date she’ll perceive my question as normal, and not prying. Because if she thinks I’m prying then this is one nosey father who has a whole decade of angst waiting for him (I study relationships; I am inherently nosey). And if she chooses to be evasive, at least now I know she’s just exercising her right to privacy, and maybe my understanding that fact will open her up after all. Of course, the irony in all of this is that I probably don’t want to know what’s really going on anyway.

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1Hawk, S. T., Keijsers, L., Frijns, T., Hale III, W. W., Branje, S., & Meeus, W. (in press). “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”: Parental privacy invasion predicts reduced parental knowledge. Developmental Psychology. doi: 10.1037/a0029484.

Dr. Tim Loving - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He's a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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