What do you do if you’re one of the unlucky parents who has a sneaky teen? You put very clear rules in place, but your teenager continues to do the wrong thing? A lot of the time you’d even say yes if they’d simply ask, but they sneak anyhow. This is incredibly frustrating for a parent. It’s not that you want to control your teenager- you don’t. You just want a trusting relationship between the two of you. You want them to trust that you will say yes when it’s appropriate, and you want to trust they are doing what they tell you they’re doing.
The first thing you need to ask yourself is why they are sneaking. You may or may not be able to answer this question. If you believe they are sneaking because they are using drugs, having sex, or doing something otherwise dangerous they know you’d put a stop to, address this immediately. For those of you that are pretty certain your adolescent isn’t doing anything dangerous, but is sneaking for some other reason, read on.
Perhaps one reason your teenager is sneaking is because you say no too often. They feel confident you won’t give them any space if they ask for it. They think the only way to have a little room to explore who they are is to go without permission. I once worked with a teen boy who kept saying, “It’s easier to get forgiveness than ask permission.” In his case, he was right. He learned this very quickly and realized it was the only way he was ever going to date, try going to a party, or even get into minor mischief like toilet papering a friend’s house.
Another reason an adolescent could be sneaking is they are engaging in certain activities you wouldn’t approve of. One way that many, many teenagers sneak is with their phones. A lot of teens have smart phones now, and a great number of them download apps you would not like if you only knew they were there. They know you’d make them take the apps off, and they don’t want to.
Whatever the reason(s) your teenager is being sneaky, here are a few ideas you can try to minimize this behavior. The first thing to try is a heartfelt heart to heart chat. This isn’t the situation where you punish them or get angry with them for what they’ve been doing. Instead you talk about how it hurts you not to feel like you can trust your own child. You ask them how they’ve been feeling when you keep getting frustrated with them as you catch them in their lies. You and the teenager put your heads together to come up with a plan that will change this.
If this doesn’t work, you may have to try a less collaborative approach. Warn your teenager this is coming if they don’t start being much, much more honest. Then, outline very clear consequences that will occur if they are caught lying/sneaking. Do this with a lot of love. You don’t need to yell or even have a stern voice. The only thing that is very important is you follow through on whatever consequence you’ve promised to give. Be extremely consistent. Reward them for honesty too.
Your final option is to make their world really small so it’s hard to sneak anything. However, if you do this take care to make sure they don’t start resenting you. You want all consequences you administer to children to make them think about how their action caused this result. You don’t want them thinking, “My parents are such unfair jerks.” They won’t learn anything that way.
Sneakiness is a really challenging character struggle to contend with and correct. You are not alone in your aggravation. Any parent who has dealt with a sneaky teenager feels angry, sometimes scared, and occasionally hopeless. Just try your best to work on what you need to work on, keep loving them well, and be patient as you help them course correct.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT