I lean against the doorframe, hovering at the threshold of my teenage daughter’s room. She’s away at camp for a month and the space is uncommonly tidy. The bed is made, the floor clear of the usual pile of cast-off clothes, tattered Converse, and curled paperbacks. Her phone, usually glued to her palm or shoved into the back pocket of her fraying jean shorts, is powered down and resting casually on the shelf.
With my daughter away, it’s tempting to sneak a peek into her world. I could fold her rumpled T-shirts while keeping an eye out for her journal. I could empty her backpack, still bulging with end-of-school-year binders and books, and scan her notes. I could pull everything out from under her bed to, you know, sweep out all those dust bunnies, and maybe come across some telling tidbit. I could even turn on her phone, type in the password she’s shared with me, and scroll through her online life.
I could. But I don’t.
At 14, my daughter is transitioning from an eager-to-share child to a much more private young adult. While I’m not thrilled about being left in the semi-dark (she does still share bits and pieces about her life), I know it’s a normal part of growing up. As my daughter pulls away, my urge to hold her close and be privy to all the details of her life like I was when she was little, is often overpowering. Meanwhile, her need for privacy can be just as fierce. It’s not easy, but I try my best to honor that.
When I was a teenager, I spent hours holed up in my room reading the Flowers in the Attic series, teasing my bangs and jabbering on the phone. I spent more hours hanging out at the mall, trolling our little town’s main drag in a pack and listening to The Go-Go’s in someone’s basement — all without adult supervision. In high school I found ways around my curfew, delighted to slip away into a world that had nothing to do with my parents. Figuring out what to do, where to go, and how to get there all on my own was a rite of passage. Knowing when to go home and take my friends with me was an acquired skill.
These days, it feels like none of us have much privacy, let alone teenagers. Most of them move from a full day of adult oversight at school to after-school activities to the demands of homework and home life with hardly a break. Technology might be the one place where teens can actually create a world of their own separate from their parents. I’m as eager as the next over-involved, Generation X mom to be a part of my teenager’s life, but I do believe teens deserve a little privacy, especially if they haven’t done anything to indicate that they’re abusing that autonomy.
Maintaining physical privacy is a big one in my house. My daughter generally keeps the door to her room closed but is responsive whenever I knock (unless she’s half-dressed, then she freaks out), which is several times throughout the afternoon and evening. According to Lisa Damour Ph.D., author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood, teenagers are generally doing the same thing behind closed doors that they would with the door open. For now, that means my kid is probably watching a documentary on black holes, reading To Kill a Mockingbird, or keeping up on her ugly selfies Snapchat streaks — as far as I know.
I try not to pry too much into my teen’s emotional state because I find that actually puts distance between us. Her eyes glaze over as I talk on, which means she’s not up for sharing. She knows I’m interested, and when she’s ready, she’ll often come to me. Socially, I keep up with who her friends are and know their parents well enough to call and crosscheck the details of the hangout they’re all headed to. I never make those calls without letting her know first.
For me, the online world is the most challenging space in which to grant privacy to my teen. In the same way I can’t know who or what my 14-year-old will encounter when she walks the 10 minutes to her friend’s house, I can’t know who or what she’ll encounter as she navigates texting, Snapchat, and the rest of the social media universe. Well, technically I can, because she shares her passwords with me — that’s a rule anytime she downloads a social media app.
The point is, I don’t because I want her to know that I believe she’s capable of keeping herself safe, being kind, and making good decisions on her own. If a situation gets sticky, I want her to trust me with whatever happened and know I am here to help her, no matter what. By respecting my daughter’s online privacy, my goal is to encourage her confidence and build a trust between us that will keep the lines of communication open.
I know it’s normal for my teen to want a certain degree of privacy, but it’s not easy to accept that I no longer know everything about her. In the widening gap between us, she’s getting to know herself better, creating and owning her experiences, and gaining confidence every time she makes a decision, good or bad, on her own. So far, I’m pretty impressed with this young adult version of my girl, and I can’t wait to get to know her better.