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Q. "My 14-year-old son hangs out with older boys. He also works with them and their uncle. I'm glad about the work, since he is earning money and learning a trade. However, when he comes home in the evenings, he goes directly to his room, which is a disaster area. His attitude toward the family is rotten. I don't know what's up. He refuses to clean his room and gets angry if I go in there, which I can understand. I'm worried about him, and I'm tempted to snoop. I don't want him to turn on me completely and I do want to trust him. But I was a teenager once and I don't trust them! What are your opinions about snooping?"
A. If you know for a fact your son has turned to illegal, unhealthy, or illicit activities, confront him. If you simply suspect this is the case, keep your parenting antenna pointed in his direction but resist snooping through his room, backpack, or pockets. Doing so violates his personal privacy and will only lead to mistrust and further alienation between the two of you.
When a teen spends his time holed up in a bedroom that's in a complete state of disarray and presents a rotten attitude to the family, parents often assume he is hiding something. Rest assured this need not be the case. Your son's behavior, however disturbing, is typical of teens. By acting as he is, he's proving to himself and to you that he's an individual separate from you -- you can't control him, and you have little power over him.
It's also characteristic of adolescents to latch onto an admired adult who offers a world view that differs from the one they've learned from their parents. By hanging out with these older boys and their uncle, your son most likely bridges the gap between the dependence of home and the independence of the adult world.
Your son's work with these older boys and their uncle sounds like a positive situation -- as long as everything is on the up and up. Here's the direction in which you want to point your parenting antenna: Investigate the work situation just to make sure it's positive and above board. If it isn't, get help from a professional. As you realize, this teen of yours, like many others, isn't inclined to listen to Mom or Dad. That's why, if he's turning to trouble, it's best to solicit assistance from a counselor, pastor, coach, or relative whom your son might be willing to listen to.
If you can't stand the thought of that messy bedroom, tell your son that unless it's cleaned -- vacuumed, dusted, and tidied -- by 3:00 on Saturday afternoons, you're going to clean it yourself. If he fails to meet your ultimatum, go ahead and clean the room. As you do so, you're not going to rifle through personal paraphernalia, but you'll be innocently acquiring information about his teenaged life. Since he didn't clean his own room, this option is fair game.
It's sad when teens take such a drastic step away from the parenting nest, cutting themselves off from family interaction. It's also worrisome. Snooping, however, is an offensive attack against a teenager. Stay on the defensive by keeping track of this young man's whereabouts, stocking the refrigerator with the food he likes, and allowing him to eat whenever he's hungry. When he eats, sit with him and tell him about your adult life. The likelihood is great that he'll then divulge bits and pieces of his personal life without your ever needing to snoop.