Teen Privacy: When to Cross the Line

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 14, 2012
From the WebMD Archives

As kids get older, keeping them safe can get complicated. While separating from parents can be healthy, teens are notorious for bad, sometimes dangerous decisions. Parents face a troubling dilemma: Do the dangers of teen drug abuse override the right to privacy?

Parents typically do one of two things in the face of possible teen drinking or drug use. "Some parents overreact, but a large number of parents don’t do anything," says Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of The Partnership at "They hope it’s a phase. They hope it goes away."

Even though they can’t control everything, parents do play an important role in their teen’s decisions. Kids who learn a lot about the risks from their parents are up to 50% less likely to use drugs. Despite this, only 31% of kids say their parents have taught them about the risks of drugs.

Before you pull a search warrant, keep in mind that going through your teen’s stuff carries its own risks. "If a parent violates a teen’s privacy, the kid is more likely to be stuck in a state of defiance," says Susan Swick, MD, MPH, director of the Parenting At a Challenging Time (PACT) program at the Vernon Cancer Center, Newton Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts. "Ideally, children should feel like parents are on their side," Swick tells WebMD. As many parents know, this is not always easy.

In this article, WebMD turns to several experts to help parents navigate the fine line between teens’ right to privacy and parental protection.

Before Invading a Teen’s Right to Privacy

"If a parent is concerned about their child’s behavior, there probably is something going on," says Swick, who is also an attending psychiatrist in the division of child psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. "But it may not be what they think." Something other than alcohol or drugs could be fueling your child’s behavior. It could be your child is depressed, struggling at school, or thinking about coming out of the closet. No matter what’s going on, it’s good to find out directly from your child -- if possible.

"Parents should talk to their child before resorting to detective work," Swick tells WebMD. No matter what is going on, talking will be a big part of helping your child through it. If you do find something that confirms your worst fears, you will be in a better position if you can say, ‘we talked about this, and I was still seeing things that concerned me. As your parent, I am not going to ignore signs that you might be in danger.’"

The most effective communication is as common as getting ready for school. "The scary ‘Drug Talk’ never goes well," says Pasierb. Rather than a talk both of you are going to dread, he recommends an ongoing dialogue that lets your child know where you stand on drug use. "Open communication is about things parents say every day, on the way to soccer practice or while watching TV," Pasierb tells WebMD.

Reasons Parents Overlook Teen Drug Abuse

There are plenty of reasons parents may be tempted to ignore signs of teen drug or alcohol abuse. "Shame and stigma around addiction play a heavy role," says Kim Manlove. After their 16-year-old son died as a result of drug use, Manlove and his wife, Marissa, started a support group for other parents. "A lot of the parents we work with think they have failed as a parent if their child has a drug problem," says Manlove.

Many parents don’t raise the subject, thinking they don’t know enough about drugs. If this is the case, time at the library or on web sites such as can build the knowledge and confidence to start talking. Other parents dread their teenager’s response if they question possible drug use. Teen brains are uniquely primed to react to even the most innocent comments, even facial expressions, with explosive bursts of emotion.

For parents who avoid conflict, the promise of an emotional outburst may seem an impossible hurdle. "Teens are more comfortable being in opposition with their parents," says Swick. But getting involved when you suspect teen drug or alcohol abuse is worth the discomfort. Parents who intervene early in teen drug or alcohol abuse can significantly reduce the possibility their child will become addicted.

When to Worry about Cough Medicine Abuse

Parents and teens tend to discount cough medicine abuse because it is legal and easy to purchase. That’s a mistake, says Pasierb. "Cough medicine is rarely a kid’s drug of choice…," he says. Once is enough for half of the kids who try it. "The teens who abuse cough medicine more than once are typically engaged in multiple forms of drug abuse," Pasierb tells WebMD.

Chances are, if you see any signs of teen drug or alcohol abuse, your child has moved beyond simple experimentation. "By the time parents see signs, it’s usually the tip of the iceberg," says Manlove. Your child may play it down but if you find empty bottles or drug paraphernalia in his things, there is a strong possibility that not only is he using, he’s losing control of the ability to hide it from you.

The Role and Power of Parents

You cannot control every aspect of your child’s life, especially as she enters the teen years, but you do play an important role. In a survey of more than 2,000 teenagers and 450 parents, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) found that teens with strong ties to their parents were less likely to use drugs or alcohol.

Respecting your role as your child’s protector might help you work through the privacy question. "Any substance use is a risk to your child’s health," says Pasierb. "If parents are trying to understand the threat of drug or alcohol abuse to their child’s health, and they have a strong suspicion, it makes sense to look into it."

Involve Your Child in the Solution

In the end, what you do if you do find evidence of drug use is more significant than whether you override your teen’s right to privacy. If she could do it over again, Manlove would take a more collaborative approach to her son’s drug abuse. "I wish I had said to him, ‘I’m really worried about what I’m seeing. I want to be here to work with you and find a solution together.’"

Swick recommends just such an approach to the parents she works with. "You don’t want to leave your child feeling isolated and panicked," she says. Whatever you do or say, letting your child know she can lean on you should be a big part of the message. "If possible, your child should feel somewhat relieved to be able to talk to you," Swick says.

WebMD Feature



Kasnter, L, and J Wyatt. Getting to Calm: Cool-headed Strategies for Parenting Teens + Tweens. ParentMap, 2009.

Steve Pasierb, president and chief executive officer, The Partnership at

The Partnership at

Susan Swick, MD, MPH, director, Parenting At a Challenging Time (PACT) and medical director, Mental Health Services at the Vernon Cancer Center, Newton Wellesley Hospital, Newton, MA; attending psychiatrist, Massachusetts General Hospital Division of Child Psychiatry, Boston; instructor in psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge.

Kuhn, C., S. Swartzwelder, and W. Wilson. Just Say Know: Talking with Kids about Drugs and Alcohol. W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.

Kim and Marissa Manlove, co-chairs, Parent Advisory Board, The Partnership at

Winters, K. "Adolescent Brain Development and Drug Abuse". Philadelphia Treatment Research Institute, 2004.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

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