Should You Spy on Your Teenager?

mom looking at teen daughter using phone

An important part of parenting is to keep your kids safe and help them make good decisions. Your strong instincts to protect your teens from making bad choices is what motivates you to check in with them and even call their friends’ parents to check to make sure they are being adequately supervised. But what about spying? Is that going too far? It’s possible that your desire to protect may lead you to cross a line that can damage not only your teenager but also your relationship with them.

So how do we act as conscientious, loving parents who responsibly watch over our kids, without becoming so overbearing that we cross that line and end up creating problems even bigger than the ones we’re trying to avoid? Well, we can start by asking ourselves some basic questions:

father scolding teen about their phone use

What Are My Motives?

Ask yourself why you feel the need to spy. Is it really necessary? Is your teenager in real danger? If so, then there might actually be a need to monitor at least some of what they’re doing, so you can help them be safe. But it’s a different story if your teen is actually a good, responsible kid. Is there a chance that you’re being paranoid? Maybe you made some mistakes in your youth, and you’re afraid that your teen will do the same. It’s completely understandable that you’d want to protect your child from going down the wrong road. But unless you’ve been given some legitimate reason that your child is in real danger, then you should think twice (or more) about secretly checking emails or reading journals.

Is Spying Worth the Risk?

The benefit of spying on your teen is that you’ll be privy to information that might allow you to act before your teen makes a bad choice. But the downside is that it can seriously erode trust. You will lose trust in your teen when you find out things they’re not telling you. But in my opinion, what’s even worse is that when they find out you’ve been spying on them, they’ll stop trusting you. Spying is a violation of your trust in them, their trust in you, and of their privacy. Once they feel violated and that they can’t trust you, they may stop talking to you about anything. When the doors of communication get closed, they can take a long time to pry back open. Plus, spying may even fuel the fire, motivating your teen to participate in even more dangerous or devious behavior.

mom spying behind curtain

Are There Alternatives to Spying?

There really are better options that emphasize accountability and conversation, instead of secrecy and spying. Probably the best alternative is to be upfront about the fact that you’ll be keeping tabs on your kids. Tell them that you’ll be monitoring their text messages and IMs and emails. Also, explain that if they say they are going over to someone’s house, you’ll be calling to check in and make sure there’s parental supervision. Tell them that you’ll be tracking the GPS or the speed-limit monitor in the car. This way, they know that you’re checking up on them, but that you’re doing it with open dialogue and because you love them and want to keep them safe. Then, when they don’t do what they’re supposed to, they know you know, and you two can talk about it without eroding the trust between you.

Remember, teenagers have a biological need to rebel. It’s in their DNA. Researchers have found that adolescents all over the world are alike in three main ways: they want to establish their own identity and social networks; they want to spend more time with peers than with family; and they want to do things differently from how their parents think things should be done. In other words, the developmental milestone of adolescence is autonomy. With this in mind, it’s actually important that they make some mistakes and learn through the natural consequences of those mistakes.

As parents, then, we need to remember that while it can be nerve-wracking for us, this autonomy our kids are working so hard to achieve is exactly what they’re supposed to be developing. It’s ultimately what we want for them—for them to be their own individuals, with the ability to think for themselves and thrive on their own, with the support of their family.

So give your teenagers that support. Keep checking up on them, making sure that they’re safe and making good decisions. Accountability is crucial for kids at this age. But do it in a way that’s honest and that also protects your relationship and the trust between you.