One of the most difficult questions we ask ourselves as parents is, "When should I jump in and monitor my child, and when should I step back and allow them some privacy?" I’ve worked with many parents who were shocked to find out their child felt depressed, was smoking pot or drinking, or had falling grades in school. On the other end of the spectrum are helicopter parents, who hover constantly and are hesitant to allow their child any privacy or independence whatsoever.
Any time you increase the amount you check up on your child, let him know exactly what behavior you will need to see from him in order to feel comfortable giving back some freedom and privacy.
Here’s a good start: If your child usually behaves appropriately—getting homework done and taking care of his other responsibilities—he will probably be fine with minimal checking-up unless he gives you good reason to think otherwise, even if he sometimes cops an attitude or acts annoyed when you ask him to do things. (A good reason to jump in might be a sudden change in behavior, dropping grades, or disinterest in things he used to enjoy doing.) If your child is getting below-average grades in school, yells when you ask him to do homework, seldom comes home on time and has lied about where he was, or has even become verbally abusive or intimidating when you tried to give him a consequence, he is going to need more limits and checking-up on to ensure his safety.
Striking a Balance as a Parent
Some parents believe it is their responsibility to control their children and ensure 100% that their children do the right thing, all the time. Other parents feel it’s best to let their children do whatever they want until they misbehave or break a rule. I tend to favor the middle ground: it’s your responsibility to set limits, check up on your kids occasionally (the amount you will do this depends on their behavior), hold them accountable when it’s needed, and teach them how to make good choices even in tough social situations.
Let’s face it, though—the world can be a scary place and the urge to be a helicopter parent exists for many of us. I’ve talked to parents who’ve gone to the extreme, even when their child didn’t give them any reason to suspect they were breaking family rules. Some parents even put GPS devices with geofences on their kids’ cars, monitor their child’s every move via cell phone, and check their child’s social media many times a day to catch any activity that could be deemed even the tiniest bit inappropriate. Understand that you have every right to do these things, but it may not be accomplishing everything you want to accomplish.
That is why it’s so important to try and strike a balance between “helicopter parent” and the “completely detached parent.” In my article, Why Fixing Things For Your Child Doesn’t Help, I said that if you’re trying to prevent your child from every possible mistake or indiscretion, you may be hindering her ability to think for herself and make decisions on her own. Unless your child is on a clear downward spiral, has given you a concrete reason to be suspicious, or engages in risky behavior repeatedly, it’s probably best to let her have some breathing room. James Lehman reminds parents that independence and autonomy are legitimate needs of adolescents. Teens need a little slack on the leash so they can learn about the world around them and figure out who they are as individuals in that world. After all, you want your child to learn to manage her responsibilities on her own some day. This is vital to becoming a self-sufficient, fully functioning adult.
Four Areas to Keep Tabs on
Though parents should be involved in most aspects of their adolescent’s life, there are four key areas you should pay special attention to. “Involved” here means that you are talking to your children about safety in the areas below, for example, and have established clear expectations, limits and consequences for unsafe choices, rather than hovering.
That said, let’s take a closer look at these four key areas.
- The Internet: For the child who seems to use the internet appropriately most of the time, discussions about safety and rules will suffice, as well as random check-ins when your child is using the computer in a private area. You might also do random history checks and require that your child be your “friend” on Facebook. You can also “favorite” your child on Facebook so that you get an alert every time your child posts something new to their wall.
But remember, your child probably doesn’t go around asking his friends to post inappropriate things on his wall, but they will. That’s not within your child’s control. Give him a chance to find such things and delete them on his own first. If your child “unfriends” you, then you might require him to give you a working password in order for him to keep using Facebook. Other possible consequences could include requiring your child to sit at the kitchen table while using the internet until he is ready to try making safe choices on his own again. Be clear about what specific actions will tell you he is ready to have another chance.
- Cell Phone: This one is a bit tougher. You might decide to handle this by doing random phone checks—pick up the phone unannounced and browse through the apps and text messages. Let him know when he gets the phone (or at some point when you’re having a conversation about safety) that you will be doing these checks. You might also ask your child to give you their friends’ phone numbers as well as their parents’ phone numbers so that you can reach your child in case of an emergency. When a new number shows up on your bill, ask who it is so you know who your child is talking to. If your child is irresponsible with his cell phone, contact your service provider about parental controls or contact the manufacturer for assistance in setting some restrictions until your child is ready to try making better decisions on his own again. Again, be clear about what you need to see and for how long in order for him to get some freedom back.
- Drug or Alcohol Use: The first step here is to know the warning signs of substance abuse and stay aware of the current trends in the teen realm. www.drugfree.org is a great resource you might look into and visit regularly. If you have any reason to be suspicious, let the checking up begin! This might mean that you search your child’s belongings to see if they are in possession of anything that might confirm your suspicions. You might also call the parent of the friend they were with to see if they were really there and what kind of supervision they had.
We advise more checking-up on your child when drugs or alcohol are involved because is a serious safety issue, and the mind-altering effect these substances have can be very difficult to overcome if you don’t respond early. If your child is using drugs or alcohol, we recommend that you find a local adolescent substance abuse counselor to consult with and restrict some privileges by giving an earlier curfew, reducing the amount of money you give your child, and restricting (or taking away) driving privileges.
- Social Influences: It’s important to get to know your child’s friends. Rather than always letting your child go to her friend’s house, require her to have her friend over to your house once in a while. This will help you get a feel for the other kid’s interests and character, as well as the dynamic between her and your child. For example, is your child the follower, or does she operate on level ground with her friend?
If you become suspicious that your child is making poor decisions when she’s with a certain friend, we recommend talking to her about what she can do differently next time. Institute a period of restricted contact—the friend comes over to your house for increasingly longer times at an increasing frequency as long as the kids make good choices together. This encourages your child to think about her choices and practice making better ones. Ultimately, your child is responsible for her own behavior. To blame the other child for your child’s poor choices is a cop-out. Remember, to those other parents, your child may be the “bad influence.”
Whenever possible, you should talk to your child ahead of time and let him or her know that you will be checking up on them. For example, the very first day you buy them a cell phone, let your teen or pre-teen know it’s subject to random checks by you. Sit down and talk about the rules. If you see an issue starting—let’s say you catch your son texting at 1 a.m., even though the phone is supposed to be off by 9 p.m.—have a problem-solving discussion with him. Let him know what you see happening, ask him what his reasoning is, restate your rules and expectations, and inform him of the consequence he will receive if it happens again. Anytime you increase the amount you check up on your child, let him know exactly what behavior you need to see from him in order to feel comfortable giving back some freedom and privacy. This will motivate your child to practice making better choices—and will help him become more responsible in the long run.
Coaching kids helps them develop the skills to make better choices on their own; letting them know what will happen next time helps them to make an informed decision. This also sets your child up to succeed rather than to fail.
About Sara Bean, M.Ed.
Sara Bean, M.Ed. is a certified school counselor and former 1-on-1 Coaching advisor with over 10 years of experience working with children and families. She is also a proud mom.