Snooping on your kid: Caught in the act

Q When my daughter caught me snooping through her email, she changed her password and now I’m totally locked out! How can I gain her trust-and email access-back?

A It’s a familiar scene-parents getting caught in the act of hacking their child’s email or Facebook account and igniting a battle over privacy. While your intentions may have been innocent, the feeling of breaking your child’s trust and losing access can be pretty lousy. The first thing to do is to ‘fess up. Kids will see through lies, and dishonesty can further drive a wedge in your relationship. Then follow these steps to keep lines of communication open and cultivate mutual respect.

Apologize and acknowledge feelings. Shuffling through your child’s email is like opening her mail without permission or eavesdropping on a phone conversation. Admit your behavior was sneaky and not the best way to check in. Don’t say: “I’m sorry, but I’m your mother. It’s not a big deal.” Do say: “I’m sorry I looked at your email without talking to you first. I understand why you’re angry.”

Explain without blame. Help your child understand why you feel the need to check on emails, but avoid justifying your actions by blaming them on her behavior. Don’t say: “You barely talk to me anymore, so I had no choice but to dig around for clues in your email.” Do say: “You’ve been distant lately. I thought your email might give me some insights into your behavior.”

Re-establish boundaries. Unless you are concerned that your child is participating in dangerous behaviors or having an inappropriate relationship, you will fare best if you keep face-to-face dialogue going and come to a mutual agreement on how to respect your child’s privacy. Work out a way to keep in touch through social networks, email or a routine trip for ice cream each week that you can both agree will keep you connected.

In case of emergencies. Ultimately we need to trust our instincts. Major mood swings, changes in appetite, a drop in grades or loss of interest in social activities might signal big problems. If you suspect your child is in danger physically or emotionally and cannot get answers through face-to-face conversations, violating your child’s privacy might be necessary to keep her safe. In these cases, the issues at hand will generally overshadow the invasion of privacy. If you do discover trouble, avoid panic. Don’t say: “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about this! What else have you been hiding?” Do say: “Your health and safety are my priority. I’m here to help. Let’s talk about what’s going on.”

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