Help. I'm fourteen and my parents read my emails

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If I had to choose an alternative career path from novelist and house-hold dogsbody, it would probably be 'Agony Aunt'. I just love to give advice. Love it, love it, love it. And when I get a letter like this from a fourteen year old whose parents are reading her emails, there's no way I'm not going to answer.

"Dear Cecily
Just today, I found out my parents occasionally check my texts and emails. I understand that when I get a skype request from a guy at 10pm, it makes my dad suspicious and worried, but there is really nothing to be worried about. But what really bugs me is the fact that I don't have any privacy. What should I do?  - Me."


Dear You,

When I read your letter I responded both as a 14 year old (I can remember it pretty clearly) and also a mother of an ex-14 year old. So I can see both sides. 

You have a pretty clear handle on what you want from your parents, which is privacy and trust. You feel that you’re not doing anything dodgy or wrong, so you don’t see why they can’t just let you handle this part of your life. 

Let me now try to explain the parents’ side of things so you can understand what they’re thinking. Once you have your head in both sides, you’ll be able to find some good solutions.

Basically, any parent of a teenager (and here I’m talking about parents who care and who aren’t just loser deadbeats who don’t give a fig what their kids do) - any parent is scared. There’s a lot of fear in having a teenage child, especially your first one. (I'm betting you're the oldest.) We parents have the benefit of a lot of hindsight and a lot of knowledge about the world. We can see the dangers and the pitfalls and the possible disasters that kids can find themselves in. And there are a lot of them too. We love our kids SO SO SO much that all we want for them is to get to adulthood without being hurt or killed or bullied or abused or kidnapped or drugged or murdered. (I’m going a little bit extreme here, but you get the idea!)

Also, we can see just how young 14 year olds still are. Sorry about this. I don’t mean to imply you’re not mature. I’m sure you are. It’s just that physically, your brain as a teenager is not able to assess risk in the same way that an adult brain can. There are studies on this – it’s scientifically proven. So a 14 year old who thinks she can handle a situation may often be way out of her depth. Or she may be fine. But there’s no real way of knowing. Maturity comes with experience, and teenagers of this age simply don’t have the experience.

So parents are basically terrified (and when I say terrified, I really do mean that) of bad things happening to you guys. Often the way our terror shows itself is in trying to stay in control of a situation, or over-checking, or checking up on, or saying ‘no’ with no arguments allowed, or getting mad.

When you put the two different sides of the argument together, you’ve got the teenage side saying, “I’m fine and trust me because nothing’s going to happen!” and the parents saying, “YOU ARE NOT FINE AND EVERYTHING MIGHT HAPPEN AND HOW CAN WE POSSIBLY TRUST YOU? YOU’RE ONLY FOURTEEN SO YOU JUST HAVE TO STOP DOING WHATEVER YOU’RE DOING!!!”

Which kind of seems insolvable, wouldn’t you agree?

Well, I think there is a way forward. 

It comes down to three things: trust building, good communication and compromise. 

Let me explain trust building. Basically your parents will trust you more, the more you show you are trustworthy and responsible. Every time you do something that appears mature, you earn trust points. Every time you do something that’s immature, irresponsible, mean, silly or selfish, you lose trust points. It’s just the way it works. It doesn’t mean you have to be perfect all the time, it just means that if it’s your habit to be responsible and ‘all about others’, you will be trusted more than if it’s your habit to be irresponsible and ‘all about you’.

Trust points can be built by: helping out happily around the house, not fighting any rules or restrictions (don’t worry… keep reading… I’m not saying that all you have to do is knuckle under), doing your homework, getting the best marks you can, looking after your younger siblings, taking a genuine interest in other people, cleaning up after yourself, showing initiative and caring for others.

Trust points are lost by: having to be told more than once things that you should be doing anyway, forgetting about things you’ve been asked to deliver or do, not trying at schoolwork, forgetting to do homework, staying in a mess, only thinking about what you want to do at any given time. 

As I said before, the more trust points you earn, the more your parents see you as trustworthy, responsible and mature. And the more freedom they give you because they really do know you can ‘handle’ it.

Then there’s good communication. This requires understanding someone else’s point of view, showing you understand what they want and expect, listening respectfully, taking your turn to answer, proposing solutions and seeing if you can both work together to find a workable solution. If your parents are terrible communicators, this will be hard. But it’s not impossible if you have patience and love and don’t give up too quickly or yell or sulk or cry. (By the way, part of good communication is choosing the right time to talk to your parents too – if they are super stressed and worried about something else, you won’t get a good hearing. You need to wait until they are relaxed and have time to talk about something.)

And then there’s compromise, which means both sides have to agree to give something up so that you can both be happy.

So… here we go.

I suggest that you spend a few weeks seriously earning trust points. But not just doing it in a fake way. Actually think to yourself, “How can I turn things around so that I am more trusted in the long term? What can I give my parents so that we can have a better, more open, more realistic relationship?” And spend some time doing it. This stuff takes time because parents have long memories and take a while to convince. 

You’ll notice that things are getting better with your parents when you start earning trust points. At that stage, ask your parents if you can have a serious conversation. 

You then explain that you understand that they are worried about social media and the way you’ve been using it. You know that often kids can get caught up in unhealthy relationships or dangerous situations on the internet. Your desire is to have good relationships with friends, that’s all and you feel like a little kid when your email and things are read. Like you’re not trusted.

Then you propose some limits around your social media use. This is the compromise bit. Maybe you stop at 9pm or 8pm or something. Or you use it in the public area of the house only. Something that lets your parents know you understand their fears, and that you’re responsible. If you hold to this, they don’t get to read your email. If you don’t, then it’s free for all. Also, you promise to tell them the minute you start to get bullied, or you think someone says something inappropriate, or whatever it is they are worried about. Make them a partner in your problems so they don’t feel you’re just freezing them out. (Also, you're going to need them at some stage in the future... keep the friendship going.)

Then, listen to what they say. Really listen. Try to understand their point of view. Agree with as much as you possibly can. Really, really try not to yell or scream. Hopefully, you’ll all be able to come to some agreement whereby you get the privacy you want and they get the reassurance they need that you’re not about to get sucked into some terrible online relationship that’s going to scar you for life. (Because some things will do that and you don't want to be dealing with the aftermath of trauma for a long time to come, believe me.)

All the very best, Cecily x


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