Keeping Tabs on Teens

Home / Parenting / Keeping Tabs on Teens


Raising teens in today's world can be a daunting challenge. They're vulnerable to dangers that lurk around many corners, whether the corner is at home or miles away.

Dangers to younger children are mostly centered near home. As children get older, the dangers multiply and become harder to anticipate. Parents often feel helpless because they can't keep up the same level of vigilance as they could when their children were smaller. Teen children cannot be in sight at all moments.

With teens, a different kind of vigilance is needed. Call it "monitoring" or "keeping tabs," but don't think it requires any less effort. Parents can -- and must - watch over their teens with continuing vigilance. The older the child, the more your monitoring will become oversight rather than direct sight, but it is just as important.

Monitoring means supervising your teens. It means knowing your teens' whereabouts at all times, who they spend time with, and all their social plans. It also includes being aware of your teenager's behavior when he or she is not in your sight, such as during school hours.

Monitoring children has become more difficult. The higher number of single parents and mothers in the workforce mean fewer parents are at home before and after school, leaving more children unsupervised. Fewer adult neighbors are at home to lend a watchful eye. Even when neighbors are home, neighborliness has declined, resulting in less looking out for one another's children.

Despite the increasing challenges, monitoring is one of the most important things a parent can do to prevent adolescent problem behavior. Research shows that better parental monitoring is related to lower rates of sexual activity, drug and alcohol use, truancy, thoughts about suicide and suicide attempts, running away and delinquency. One study showed that only 8 percent of ninth graders whose parents monitored their activities closely were likely to have had five alcoholic drinks in a row during the past month, compared with 68 percent of ninth graders whose parents didn't keep close tabs on them. A similar trend was noted for sexual activity.

To be an effective monitor, you don't need to be present at every moment. You also don't have to become overly intrusive or violate the privacy that teens typically crave. You do need to show consistent and active interest in your child's life. And you do need to be willing to enforce family rules and raise issues that concern you.

In one family a dispute came up when the 14-year-old daughter told her parents she wanted to go to a high school dance. Her parents thought she was too young, and they proposed that instead she give a party at their house. She thought that was a dumb idea, but she couldn't come up with an alternative that both she and her parents felt good about. Since they couldn't agree, family rules dictated that she go by her parents' wishes. She gave the party. To her surprise, she and her friends had a great time.

We have three teens in our family. We monitor our children using the "Where? Who? What? When?" rule. The rule, simply stated, is this: "When you wish to leave the house, we insist on knowing where you are going, who you are going to be with, what you will be doing, and when you will be home." Violation of the rule invokes the agreed-upon consequence: losing the privilege of leaving the Duncan home for fun with friends for a specified time.

When you monitor your young teens this closely they might put up a fuss. Older teens might accuse you of being overly suspicious or of distrusting them. Don't pay any attention. Stay positive, smile, and insist on keeping tabs on them. It takes courage and strength to stick to your monitoring guns and enforce your rules, but the rewards are immense.

For Further Reading...

Steinberg, L. D., & Levine, A. (1997). You and your adolescent: A parent's guide for ages 10-20. New York: Harper Information.

Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


  1. Jacobson, K. C., & Crockett, L. J. (2000). Parental monitoring and adolescent adjustment: An ecological perspective. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 10, 65-97.
  2. Small, S. A., & Bogenschneider, K. (1995). Teen assessment project. University of Wisconsin-Extension Service.