Children & Privacy: Addressing Issues that were Supposed to be Secret


Recently my husband and I have found things in my 15 year-old daughter’s room that are disturbing.  Notes that talk about her sexual activity, and how boys are sneaking over in the middle of the night, a small bag of marijuana, and cigarettes.  If we told her we were snooping in her room she would go ballistic.  How do we confront her with these things without letting her know we have invaded her territory?


I don’t think there is any way to avoid telling your daughter about your “snooping” in her room.  Regarding that issue, however, were you actually snooping, or did something catch your attention just enough to lead you to want to explore it further?  Think about it.  Something must have raised your suspicion about your daughter or about her room.  Something got your attention.  What made you go in there?  Nonetheless, while your daughter might “go ballistic,” you need to remember that this is your house, and she is your child and your responsibility.  In addition, you now have enough evidence to suggest that your daughter is in serious trouble.  Her behavior – her sexual activity with, potentially, multiple partners; her use of marijuana and, perhaps, other drugs; and even her cigarette smoking, are all worrisome and clear reasons for concern.  At best, your daughter may be just experimenting with all of these behaviors, using relatively good judgment by having safe sex and not using drugs regularly.  At worst, your daughter may be at serious risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, or any other sexually transmitted disease, as a result of unprotected sex with multiple partners.  She may also be at risk for developing an addictive drug use problem.  Either way, your daughter’s behavior indicates that she feels a certain level of comfort with all kinds of deception by allowing boys to sneak in your home in the middle of the night, and by hiding illegal drugs in her room.  It is scary to think about your daughter’s secret life, one that, in all likelihood, jeopardizes, at least for the time being, her social, emotional and physical health.

I had a professor in graduate school who believed that “all family problems are ultimately problems about boundaries.”  While your daughter may, indeed, be angry about your crossing the boundary of her privacy in her room, still, you need to take charge.  Ultimately, the boundary errors in this situation were made by your daughter, not by you.   The first “boundary” error seems to be that your daughter has violated your general sense of trust, your sense or “fair play and justice” as it applies to family life.  It is perfectly reasonable for you to expect – even without actually saying it – that your daughter lives within the “boundaries” of sensible house rules and of the law.  More specifically, most parents don’t have to post a sign in their home stating that visitors are not allowed to sneak in during the middle of the night, or that hiding illegal drugs is an appropriate way to use your personal space!  Essentially, it seems fair to say that your daughter has a right to privacy as long as she doesn’t abuse it!  Also, as parents and as the adults in charge of the family’s well being, you are allowed – encouraged – to take action in order to “preserve and protect” your family’s best interest.  Should you have talked with your daughter first, before snooping in her room?   Maybe, but there is a very good chance that she would not have been honest with you, given what you now know about her current level of comfort with being deceptive.  All of these communication patterns and relationship dynamics will need to be reviewed and, hopefully, addressed within the context of a treatment regimen of therapy with a skilled family therapist…after you deal with the issue at hand.

Confront your daughter with “these things” that you have discovered, and while doing so, remind her that what you are calling “her territory” is actually yours – and that it is your responsibility to take care of that territory and all those who inhabit it.  Your daughter’s behavior has tested the limits:  your response needs to clarify and reestablish them.  Families are not democracies.  Years and years of research and experience have demonstrated that when parents take charge, in a caring, coordinated and consistent way, their children tend to lead healthier, safer and more productive lives.


David L. Gleason, Psy.D.
Licensed Psychologist