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Teens and Privacy: Should I Spy on My Child? Plus: The 4 Tactics Kids Use When They Get Caught

by James Lehman, MSW
Teens and Privacy: Should I Spy on My Child? Plus: The 4 Tactics Kids Use When They Get Caught

Note from James: A lot of the things we do to protect our children might be considered “spying” by our kids, but they are in fact measures we take to keep them safe from others, as well as from themselves. Before we begin, I want to say that I hesitate to use the word “spying” because it has a negative, sneaky connotation. It’s hard to “spy” on someone in your own home. But that’s a word parents understand and use when we talk about looking through our kids’ things, so we decided to use that characterization here.

Parents often wonder how much privacy their children need, and ask me if it’s okay to violate it. So before we get to the subject of spying on your child, I want to talk a little about adolescent privacy. Personally, I believe there should be a direct link between the amount of responsibility, consistency, and honesty that kids show and the amount of privacy they’re allowed to have in their rooms.

That’s one of a child’s big thinking errors. “I have a right to keep secrets from you; you don’t have any right to keep secrets from me.”

Adolescents need to separate and individuate. What that means is that they want to have a life of their own, and adolescence is really about preparing them for that. You should know that part of that process includes forming boundaries. To put it simply, boundaries are where your child ends and you begin. When a child is little, there is literally no separation: the child receives milk from its mother. And then as that child develops and gets older, boundaries start to develop. The day comes when your child goes to the bathroom and closes the door because he wants privacy, and he gets embarrassed if someone walks in. This separation is a natural part of human relationships, and as teens get older, the lines become clearer and clearer. Parents and kids often fight over where these boundaries exist, but your child’s need to establish them is very important. That’s why I think it's important that kids have privacy. They should have a room where they can go and just close the door. Even if they share a room with siblings, I think each child should have a place where they can have “alone time” and it’s respected by the family.

By the way, I understand that many parents go into their kids’ rooms to straighten up, pick up dirty clothes, and clean up: things we want our teens to do, even though they often don’t do it as much as we’d like. I don’t refer to that as “spying”—I call that doing what parents do. I think the term “spying” should be reserved for when parents start going through their kids' closets and drawers, going onto their computer and checking emails, looking through their backpack and pockets, and other activities of that nature. In my opinion, if your child is otherwise trustworthy, honest and responsible, I don’t believe there’s any reason for you to do that. In fact, I invite parents not to do that, and to start respecting that boundary. Certainly we don’t want our kids going through our drawers and closets. In my opinion, we should give kids who are responsible and mature the same respect.

When You Shouldn’t Spy
If you have a teenager who meets her responsibilities, comes home on curfew, is where she says she’ll be when she said she’d be there, is hanging out with the people with whom she said she would be hanging out, and you have no reason to be suspicious about anything, I suggest you stay out of her room. And I think you should tell her that, too. You can say something like, “I’m not going to interfere with your privacy, because you’re doing so well. I have no reason not to trust you.” That way, she knows she’s being rewarded for her behavior—your lack of interference in her personal space is a direct result of her actions.

Why do I think you shouldn’t you spy on your kids without good reason? Many parents do it, and I’m not saying it’s wrong. But in my opinion, it doesn’t foster independence and individuation. We want to raise a young adult who can make independent decisions and who can have a life of their own. Don’t forget, one of the things teens try to do during puberty is individuate. Part of having a life of their own is having a space of their own. So when you spy on your otherwise responsible child, the message you’re sending is, “I don’t trust you, even when you haven’t done anything wrong.”

Spying on Your Child: When the Game Changes
Let me be clear: I believe the whole game changes if you have discovered something incriminating or if you have a very real suspicion about your child’s risky activities. When faced with this situation, many parents will ask me if they have the “right” to look in their child’s room. To be honest, I don’t like talking about rights; the word is just too overused in our culture. But here’s the deal: I believe that whoever’s name is on the mortgage has a right to look anywhere in their house. In my opinion, that’s your right because you own the house. Even more importantly, you have a responsibility to protect your kids from themselves, even if they don’t want that protection.

Instead of talking about rights, I prefer talking about responsibility, accountability and obligations. I think once something triggers your suspicion and it’s real—if you think your teen might be using drugs, drinking or engaging in other risky behavior—you have an obligation and a responsibility to your child to look in their room. One empty beer can is sufficient. If you find alcohol or drugs or medication that he’s not on, I think you have to start looking around, because your responsibility is to try to protect your child from himself. And in order to accomplish that, you need knowledge. Remember, knowledge is power. When I say power, I don’t mean hitting something with a hammer—I mean the power of knowledge, when you understand what’s going on, when your eyes finally open and you see something clearly.

Monitoring the Computer
I know parents who have put monitoring programs on their children’s computers after they’ve discovered that their children have used drugs. The parents were able to read all the outgoing and incoming email on their child’s computer. Now I’m not necessarily suggesting you do that, but I do see that as fair. Remember, it’s not like we as parents have to respect all kinds of privacy for our kids and then they get to do whatever they want to do. You can’t have two sets of values. It’s not as if, “I have to be good and you can do whatever you want.” Rather, “If you don’t meet your responsibilities to take care of yourself and to stay safe, then I’m going to take whatever steps necessary. If that means looking in your room, looking in your drawers and looking on your computer, that’s exactly what I’m prepared to do.” In my opinion, doing that kind of thing after you’ve caught your child engaging in risky behavior is one of the few tools parents have.

“Why Should I Tell My Child if I’m Spying?”
Many parents will ask, “Why should I tell him I’m going to do it? He’ll only hide it outside of the house.” But that’s not your problem as a parent. Your responsibility is to be up front and clear. If he hides it outside of the house, he hides it outside of the house—remember, after the first time you find something, he’s going to hide it outside the house anyway. That’s his choice. But you’re making the rules in your house and I think you should be very clear and open about that. Make sure there are no secrets and it’s all up front before you start checking your child’s room, backpack, and computer. It’s important that you keep your integrity as an honest person intact. You can say something like, “You’ve lost my trust and I’m going to start checking on you more often. I’m doing this because I love you, want you to be safe, and I’m just not going to let you do this in our home.”

When You’ve Found Your Child Engaging in Risky Behavior
It’s a terrible thing when you’re trying to be a “good enough parent” and then your child goes out into the world and gets into trouble with drugs, drinking and other risky behaviors. On top of that, our kids are told a lot of things about what we parents can, should and shouldn’t be able to do. In my opinion, they’re fed a lot of baloney about their rights and what they should be able to do. In reality, that’s a lot of nonsense.

The fact is that it’s your home. The cell phone is probably in your name, the computer is in your name, but even if they are not, you have every right and responsibility to check them if you’ve been given cause to do so. It’s completely okay for you to look into those things in order to keep your home safe, your other children safe and especially the child whom you think is messing up safe. Don’t forget, when kids use drugs or do criminal behavior or engage in other risky activities, part of the power they have is to be secretive. That’s one of their big thinking errors. “I have a right to keep secrets from you; you don’t have any right to keep secrets from me.”

But the idea for you as a parent is, “You don’t have a right to keep secrets from me if it’s something that endangers you or endangers our family.” In my office, I trained parents to handle this situation by explaining it the following way: “You don’t have to search your child’s room, but it’s okay if you do. If your kid says, ‘You can’t do that, I’m going to call the cops,’ call the cops for them.” The police are not social workers, but if a child has been using drugs and the parent searches the room, they will support the parent. I think parents should be checking up on their child after a major infraction—and giving them stern consequences—as an obligation and as a responsibility.

By the way, parents have a hard time calling the police, and I understand. But I think it gives your child the following clear message: “Don’t try to intimidate me. I’m not going to let you destroy yourself. I’ll take any steps necessary to make sure it doesn’t happen.” I tell parents, “If he won’t listen to your authority, let’s kick it up a notch. Let’s go to a higher level of authority.” Believe me, when there’s a guy in your room in a blue uniform with a gun on and handcuffs on his belt and a big old flashlight, you know right away you’re not dealing with mommy and daddy anymore. That message comes across loud and clear: You’re not dealing with someone who you can manipulate and turn things around on.

Don’t Let Your Child Turn the Argument Around on You
When kids are caught with something incriminating, many of them will try to turn it around and say, “I can’t believe you went into my room!” They make it seem as if the parent has done something wrong. Turning things around is a tactic kids use to put parents on the defensive. They create an argument as a diversion to avoid taking responsibility for their actions or behavior. Below are a few tactics kids use when in this situation, and ways for you as a parent to make sure the discussion stays on track.

  • Tactic #1: “I can’t believe you were spying on me!”

Here’s a common scenario: The parent says, “I found some rolling papers in your desk drawer.” And the child answers them with, “I can’t believe you were spying on me! I’m 16 years old. What’s wrong with you?” The parent should not get sucked into that argument. Instead, the parent should say, “I told you I’d be checking into things. The problem is not whether I’ve been spying on you, the problem is the rolling papers you have in your drawer. And that’s the only thing I’m willing to talk to you about. If you want to yell or scream, go yell or scream some place else. Because when you’re done, that’s what we’ll discuss. Not me violating your rights, because you are violating our home.”

So, don’t let your child turn it around. Say, “We’ll talk about this when you’re ready to talk about it calmly.” And then turn around and walk away. If your child says, “I’m ready now.” Tell him, “No, we have to wait 15 minutes. I’m not calm enough now.” Go sit down, take a walk, go have a cup of tea. And then come back, talk about it, and explain the consequences for their actions.

  • Tactic #2: “I’m holding it for a friend.”

Kids will also say, “Well, it’s not even mine. I’m holding it for a friend.” I think you should come back with, “I don’t want to hear any of that. It’s your responsibility not to bring stuff like this into this house and you’re going to be held accountable for it no matter what you were doing.” Because kids will try to tell you that they’re being noble—it’s another tactic they use. They’re doing it to “save a friend.” Just don’t buy that. Say, “You brought it into the house. It’s in your possession. It’s your responsibility.” Look at it this way, if a cop stops you and you have an ounce of marijuana and you tell him it’s your cousin’s, they don’t want to hear that. You’ve got it in your hand, that’s all that matters because you’re in possession of it. And if you’re in possession of it, you’re responsible for it and you’re accountable to the law. That’s all there is to it.

  • Tactic #3: “Why don’t you trust me?”

As I’ve said, adolescents are real pros at diverting the argument. So, if you say, “How come I found an empty beer can under your bed,” they might come back with, “Why are you spying in my room—why don’t you trust me?” But that’s not the question or the issue. The issue is that your child had an empty beer can under his bed. Holding him accountable is not spying, and you’re not violating his privacy or rights; don’t get dragged into that fight. Say, “We’re not talking about trusting you. We’re not talking about violating your privacy. You know the rules in this house. There are no drugs and alcohol allowed, both in the house and for your own personal use. That’s the issue, not your privacy. We’re going to talk about this in an hour, and I want you to be ready.” And turn around and leave the room.

  • Tactic #4: “You broke your promise!”

If you spy on your child without cause and find something incriminating, I think you have to sit down and say, “Listen, I did something today that you’re not going to like. I went into your room without your knowledge and I looked around. And while I know you don’t like that, and I know that I told you I wouldn’t, I did it today. And I accept that you’re angry. If there’s some way I can make it up to you, I will. But while I was in there, I found some cough syrup bottles. And we’re going to have to talk about that and deal with it. And I want an answer as to how they got there and why they are in my house.” And if your child gets really incriminating and tries to turn it around, if he starts escalating and yells, “You promised you wouldn’t go in my room,” you can say, “We’ll talk about this when you calm down. I’ll be back in half an hour.” And turn around and leave. In this case, I think you should admit you were wrong and say you’re sorry if that’s the case. But also, the issue at hand has to be dealt with. Some things are just that important.

Is It OK to Take the Door Off My Child’s Bedroom?
I’ve known families where they’ve taken the door off the bedroom of an acting-out child.
My question for them is always, “Well, how’s he going to have any privacy?” If you take their door off, in my opinion, you’d better have a good reason. If your child is smoking pot in his room and hanging out the window, I think that’s a good reason. But ask yourself this: once you take the door off, how are you going to let him earn it back? It’s not, “The door’s gone forever.” And it’s not even, “The door’s gone for a month.” It’s, “The door’s gone until you…” Just like we teach in The Complete Guide to Consequences, give him a task-oriented consequence.

By the way, we’re not talking here about your child winning back your trust. If your child wants to earn back your trust and his privacy, where you’re not spying on him anymore, that can be discussed at a later date—but not soon. And you can tell your child, “That’s not on the table right now. For now, we’re dealing with the consequences of your actions.”

Privacy is a Privilege, Not a Right
Again, giving a child privacy as to what goes on in their room or what’s in their drawers is a privilege you give them because they are trustworthy and honest. In my opinion, it’s not a right. And your kids should know that if they violate the trust and honesty, one of the things that’s going to change is that you are going to be watching them more carefully. And yes, that might mean going through their drawers or closet or looking through their email. But that’s the price they pay for being dishonest and untrustworthy. We all have to learn in life that losing someone’s trust is a very powerful thing. People get fired from their jobs because they’ve done something that violates their boss’s trust, like stolen something from work or used drugs or alcohol while on the job. Trust is not something that can be taken lightly, both inside your home and out. It’s not spying when you decide you have to take extra steps to keep your kids safe from what’s going on in the outside world and from their own poor decisions, especially if you have other children in the home.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


Great "nuts and bolts" advice. I really appreciate your style, James. I have a 14 year old son. He has ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), but I don't use that as an excuse or allow him to use it to get away with breaking my house rules and boundaries. Thank you for what you do. I share your articles with my friends who have children.

Comment By : ociana

I have a 15-year old son who has a history of sneaking out of the house at night. He is also Bi-Polar, oppositional defiant and has ADD. I have also found evidence of his drinking in the home. He will have his driver's license in a year or so. Before that happens I want to make sure that he has a year's history of being where he says he is going to be. Many kids leave the movie theater and go to the house of a friend where there is no parental supervision. Our celluar phone company offers a device that will enable me to verify on my computer screen that my son is where he says he is going to be. If I tell my son that I can verify where he says he is going to be, he will simply leave his cell phone with a friend who is in the movie theatre. Please bear in mind that I just want to determine that has given up his old ways before he gets behind the wheel of a car.

Comment By : Dancefloor

Great article. I have been going through trust issues with my 15 year old daughter since I found empty alcohol bottles in her room last summer. Since then I have been checking on her more. I check her room, email, backpack and text messages. I don't like doing it but I feel that she has made some bad decisions and I need to keep a closer watch on her. She was upset about it at first but I told her that I would be checking on her periodically and her behavior has improved. My daughter has said she feels that she does not have any personal space and I have backed off on checking up on her so much since she has been following the rules and being more respectful. I think kids have to know that we care about them and I'm not spying on her because I want to know about everything in her life. I spy because I love her and want to make sure that she is safe and not engaging in any other risky behavior. There are so many things out there for kids to get into trouble and as a parents we have to make sure they are allowed to make some decision and mistakes to learn from but not go so far as to hurt themselves and their future.

Comment By : Pghmom

Lots of stuff that we used by instinct. Concerning calling the police-one word of advice: call them first and see just how far they will back you up. Where we live, we don't get a lot of support from the local sherrif's department. Our son was over 18 and the ONLY way they would allow him to be evicted was if we had clear rules posted and upon violation, that we give him a formal notice. The rules were tough and he moved out on his own.

Comment By : mightyhorn

My husband and I lead a Building Stronger Christian Families class. Our lesson a few weeks ago was on this very topic. You addressed the privacy vs. trust issue and how to balance them very well. With your permission, I would like to share this article with our class members.

Comment By : JC

Dear JC: Thank you for your comment -- we're happy this article was helpful! I wanted to mention that we encourage all our readers to use our articles and distribute them to their friends, family, school, church, community center, etc. The only thing we ask is that you attribute the article to Empowering Parents, and the author--James Lehman, MSW. (If you're making copies, you can just include that in writing at the bottom of the article.) Thanks, and please let us know how it goes with your class!

Comment By : Elisabeth, EP Editor

Fantastic. This is what I like to call "old school". I believe that if we parent, truly parent, our children, whatever the age, instead of trying to be their friends and buddies, we will pass along to them the tools needed to survive this crazy society. They may not recognize it now, but someday they will thank you for taking the time to parent them. It's in my opinion the hardest job in the world.

Comment By : Tmag

Thank you so much for this article. 2 years ago I found my daughters journal and read it after I suspected risky behavior and found she was in a great deal more trouble than I could have ever imagined. Now she is 17, drinking, smoking (cigarettes and pot) and at this point I have had it. Less than 2 weeks ago she was over a friends house and the mother called me and told me that she brought over some alcohol and drank some, vomited all over the place and passed out. I took her to the emergency room and she was very scared when she came to. I tell you that she has to work extra hard now to re-earn my trust. Believe me when I say that nobody wanted to trust her more than her me, but I can't anymore. She has broken my heart 1 too many times and I feel like I can never trust her again.

Comment By : dawnmcav65

Thank you so much! I have searched my 18 year old sons room car and whatever I had too. He received a MIP and I will search whenever I have any doubts. We have gone through hell the last 9 months but I feel like he is finally getting it maybe. It is so hard not to trust your child but it is good to know that it is okay to search if you suspect. I felt like times I was a crazy parent!

Comment By : james'smom

I feel the need to somewhat disagree with this article. As long as my minor child is living under my roof, I pay all of their bills and fund their existance, they must understand that I will and expect access to their email, cell phone texts, and computer sites visited or they will not have it. They are not adults, so much more is available to them and it is much easier today than in the past to make small but unwise choices. Because they understand this, it forces them to think consistently about what web sites they visit, what they say on email or text and how they treat others. When given cart blanche they will surely make some poor choices even if they have the best intentions simply because they do not possess the level of maturity that an adult has nor do they have the resoning capabilities. I believe that them knowing that I have access makes them think before they view, text or write rather than after.

Comment By : sammamishmom

This article was shared to me by a co-worker. I disagree with some aspects of this article. I feel that as a parent I have to protect them from themselves and from others. There are child preditors in our world. My child may be very trustworthy, dependable, and honest but that does not mean that they are not subjected to the deception of a child preditor. It is my responsiblity at all times to check and monitor their activity: phone calls, texting, emails, social online networks, etc. And for this article to say that the game changes after I discover suspicious activity, well frankly I believe at that point it is too late. This is not a game. This is my childs life. I have the ultimate responsibility to nurture, guide, and protect my child. This requires me to have access to all aspects of my childs life and their activity.

Comment By : pink

Some good advice for parents.

Comment By : twales

I liked your article. My situation with my son, was a little different though. He has a new girlfriend(4 months) and her family is very wealthy. They are going to a dance and he needed to buy an outfit. His girlfriend wanted to go with him, so we gave him money to buy the outfit and they went to the mall. He showed us the outfit(shirt, pants, tie and belt) and we asked how much did it cost and he said half of what we gave him. Bells went off in my head. I thought there was no way that it could have costed what he told us. The next day, I went into his room and looked in the bag and found the receipt with his girlfriends mom's credit card on it. She paid for some of the items he bought. He was really mad that I went in his room, but I don't like the idea of her paying for him and I don't know if her Mom knows what is going on. I think this has happened before too. He keeps coming home with new clothing, that he says that he bought with his allowance, but we don't give him that much. How do I handle this? I don't want him her buying him things.

Comment By : NOMONEY

* Dear ‘NOMONEY’: Instead of trying to talk to your son’s girlfriend’s parents about gift giving, teach your son your values and house rules regarding giving and accepting gifts. James Lehman says to hold your son responsible for his own behavior. If he accepts a gift that you feel is inappropriate, require him to return it. There will be many invitations extended to him in his life—some of which he will need to turn down. Help him learn how to politely yet firmly say ‘no’.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

My adolescent (19) is on antidepressants and ran away from home after having an argument with us. He has been staying with his friend. He should return to college in a week. We don’t have any idea what his plans are and we are not sure how to handle this situation. He is an obsessive video game player and most of the conflict at home comes from us trying to stop him to play (average of 10+ hours per day). His friend’s house is a safe place where two of them can play games day and night.

Comment By : videogame

I just found out that my 14-year old son is planning to have intercourse for the first time with his 14-year old girlfriend this weeknd. I know my son is not emotionally matyure enough to handle this next step in a relationship. I also worry that, becuase he's ADD/Opposiional/Executive Functioning Disorder that he will not listen to me, do the opposite of what I suggest, and not use protection. What can I do?

Comment By : TomCat

* To ‘TomCat’: It is a very scary thing for most parents to know that their children are becoming sexually active. Many parents probably have the same thoughts you express here: that their kids are not ready, not responsible enough, or not emotionally mature enough. While it’s normal to be anxious or upset about this, I’m sure you also know that your son’s interest in sex is completely normal. That said, we recommend dealing with your emotions about this before anything else. Really process what is going on for you and do something to help clear your head such as going for a walk or meeting an old friend for coffee. When you are feeling calm and have a clear plan, have a conversation with your son to reiterate your values and beliefs on this topic. Be clear about what your family rules and expectations are around romantic relationships and sexual behavior. If you haven’t already, you might implement some rules and structure around his time spent with his girlfriend. For example, you might have a rule that her parents must be home if he goes to her house and you verify with them before you take him over, or that they may not spend time in his room with the door closed when she is over your home to visit. I know this might not seem like enough-- remember this is a starting point. We wish you luck as you work through this.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

my child is a teen, so i tride it and it worked wow.

Comment By : amy s.

absoultly, its not called spying its called being involved. Besides, in my house there is no privacy, if you want privacy go buy your own house and pay the bills

Comment By : amccrea

Just wanted to comment to the parent about installing cell phone tracking, or locator. This was our experience with Verizon: 1)The tracking often is not totally accurate, just giving you a general area rather than exact location. 2)When the tracking is in progress, the phone displays a message stating locator in progress, so if your child happens to see that they will know you are tracking them. 3)If the child knows you are tracking them they will probably turn off their phone, or if the phone loses power, it can't be tracked. The phone has to be on and powered up for tracking to work.

Comment By : BeenThere

I feel a parents should monitor their kid only if they feel something is going on that they are not sharing. Then yes, its the parents job to step in and see to it the child is safe.

Comment By : ryan1414

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Responses to questions posted on are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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