Diane Wilkinson never considered snooping in her daughter's private life.
Now she wishes she had.
"My daughter was doing things that were really damaging, but I didn't see what was going on," said Wilkinson, who lives in Agoura. "If her lips were moving, she was lying. She was truant. She was using drugs--even getting drugs in the mail. But she hid this from me pretty well. Had I gone through her room, or opened her mail, or listened in on her phone calls, I could have brought it all out into the open."
By the time Wilkinson realized the trouble her daughter was in, the situation was desperate. She sent the girl off to a strict Utah boarding school for teens with behavior and drug problems, where Genevieve, now 17, conquered her drug habit and turned her life around. "Now that my daughter has nothing to hide, we are very open with each other," Wilkinson said. "But I had to take really drastic measures. If I had known what was going on, I could have intervened early on."
While poking through a child's drawers or reading a diary may seem like the ultimate intrusion, in some cases these measures may be the only way to find out if a kid is headed for trouble. As Wilkinson learned, it's not easy to balance a parent's need to know with the kid's desire for privacy.
"Especially in the preteen and teen years, when children start to separate from their parents, they require time alone and their own space," said Woodland Hills psychologist Diane Ross Glazer, who specializes in children and adolescents. "But privacy in a household is not an absolute right: It is a privilege. Parents need to know a child is not doing something harmful, illegal or against the house rules."
Glazer recommends that parents respect their children's boundaries--within limits. For example, parents may allow a teen to entertain buddies of the same sex behind a closed door, but require the door to remain open if a girlfriend or boyfriend is visiting.
Melissa Swift, 17, believes she and her mother have worked out a fair arrangement. "My mother may ask me who I am talking to on the phone, but if I say, 'I'd rather not say,' and take the phone to my room, she leaves it at that," said the Newhall teen-ager. "If I am hanging out with my friends, my mother wants to know where I am going, who I am going with and a phone number. She is pretty relaxed as long as I follow those rules. But if I do something wrong and break that trust, she will be harder on me the next time. I think that's sensible."
"I don't pry because my kids tell me everything I want to know," said Melissa's mother, Carla Swift. "I don't get bent out of shape over things that are not life-threatening. When you don't get hysterical, kids listen--and when you do, you might as well be talking to the wall."
But most experts believe that if a teen exhibits signs of trouble and won't divulge the problem, a parent has every right, even an obligation, to do whatever it takes to discover what's going on.
"You have to find that fine line between letting your kids have their privacy and keeping them alive," said Marilyn Shore, a Westlake Village clinical psychologist. "If nothing appears to be wrong, . . . and if there are no signs of drug use, do you go into their diary or through their drawers? I say, 'No.' But if you have reason to believe your kids are doing drugs, are ready to run away from home or are pregnant, sometimes the only way to find out is by getting into their stuff. Obviously, keeping your kid alive and safe supersedes everything."
That's the situation Michelle of Woodland Hills found herself in. She granted her son, 15, as much privacy as he wanted--until he began failing his classes, dressing like a gang member, scrawling graffiti on his bedroom walls and using drugs.
"My trust in him got bashed to smithereens," Michelle said. "I went through his drawers, and I found markers, spray cans and drugs stuffed in mattresses. Now nothing is sacred anymore. I ask him to empty his pockets any time I want. He knows if he closes his door, I can break in--and I don't have to knock."
Of course, if communication lines between parent and child were open, prying wouldn't be necessary. But such openness is rare, according to Shore.
"I have seen numerous cases where the parent says to the kid, 'Come to us with your problems.' But when the time comes, the parent flips! The kid learns real quick that it is not safe to go to the parent."
Which is why, Shore concludes, a parent's most successful tack is to remain calm, listen sympathetically and be prepared to help.