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Co-parenting Teens: Privacy vs. Secrecy

When co-parenting a teenager, you shift your role as they spread their wings. It is a tough balance between knowing what your teen is doing, trusting your teen.
(3 min 54 sec read)

Dave Chartier
A single co-parenting dad, a freelance writer and former syndicated dad blogger with work published in USA Today, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

As a co-parent to a tween or teenager, you are in for a seismic shift in your role as they spread their wings. Your role evolves from the person in charge all the time to being more of a coach or advisor. Rules and curfews still apply but in time they naturally earn more and more responsibility. This gives them more freedom to make their own decisions (and their own mistakes) and adjust to new levels of independence. 

In order to support this evolution, co-parents need to build out basic rules that apply across both homes so they are clear on things like letting parents know where they are, what time they’re coming home, etc. What we’re talking about is the basic bill of rights that plays between teenagers and parents. Whether or not it is formally recognized these ‘rights’ they hover around rules and responsibilities in hot areas like curfews, sexual activity, dating, and illegal substances or even the everyday items like chores, guests, activities within the home. It becomes a constant dance between trust, privacy, and freedom. Trust leading the dance as privacy and freedom are the rewards to earned trust. But what happens if the co-parents don’t trust their teenage children by default?

While some parents, rightly so perhaps, feel the need to double-down on monitoring their teens -may find it backfires with kids resorting to rabbit holes of secrecy and building bad social habits straight into adulthood.

“As the researchers expected, parents who invade their children’s privacy typically end up knowing less about what their children are doing since children often respond to privacy invasions with greater secrecy. Privacy invasions also lead to greater suspicion on the part of parents that their children are keeping secrets from them although this finding seems stronger for mothers than fathers.” ~Romeo Vitelli, PhD

Here’s an interesting example of how it recently played out with a family in my social circle. They have two children and one co-parent (father) covers the health insurance which means he’s completely aware of every physical his children have, every antibiotic they’re prescribed, every booster shot and visit they’ve ever had. Recently, he received a bill for a prescription for his daughter that he was completely unaware of. This was unsettling, to say the least. Was there a health issue or incident he was unaware of?

It turns out he was dealing first-hand with the ‘underbelly’ of privacy, which of course is secrecy. In another instance, his daughter had a boyfriend he was unaware of. This put him in an odd place. He was in a classic situation, how to address this without dealing with the negative consequences of her reacting to him knowing. He also needed to understand why she felt the need to hide it from him. Was it is because he is ‘Dad’? Does her mother know? Obviously, he had some questions to ask before confronting her. 

He realized he needed to address the situation with his co-parent and daughter separately. The first one with her mother addressing the need for solidarity between co-parents to keep each other in the loop over our children’s’ dating, curfews, sexual activity and the overall ‘seriousness’ of the relationship and the other conversation with his daughter to help her understand that he respects her interest in having a certain level of privacy but also needing to understand the difference between that and secrecy. The challenge is to maintain the co-parent code of unity by not undercutting any decisions her mother made regardless of his personal feelings. Without unity, the teenager may exploit the gray area between what each co-parent believes in.

Mistakes and misjudgments happen, learning to fix a mistake and apologizing is important. No one is perfect and the decision my friend’s daughter made by sneaking around is classic but may not be the best. There are opportunities for everyone in the family to learn something, adjust and move on. The balance between knowing what your teen is doing, trusting your teen to have some private matters and knowing when to step in is a fine line that parents walk every day. 

This is why maintaining open lines of communication can be such a bonus going through the teenage years. The most important thing to do is to understand that you and your co-parent own that standard, every day. Your communication, your ability to trust, your aptitude for secrecy is what drives the family standard. You may not know what that looks like for your co-parent’s half of the equation but you need to be your best version of ‘you’ to match your expectations for your teenagers.


10 Reasons why privacy matters | Daniel Solove

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