Remember when your child was eager to share every-thing with you, from her deepest fears and greatest delights to her opinions about practically any topic? Up until a year ago, that's just how it was with Amy Stewart Wright, of Granite Quarry, North Carolina, and her daughter Dezi, now 8. But around Dezi's seventh birthday, her mother noticed some striking changes. "She started keeping a diary, which she'd hide away as soon as I entered the room," Wright recalls. "And she'd get annoyed with me for looking over her shoulder when she was on the Internet." Like many parents of kids this age, Wright was stung by the unexpected change. It turns out, though, that Dezi's behavior is normal. "Peers become more important to kids during this time, and one of the changes that goes along with that is a desire for privacy -- in the bathroom, while dressing, with diaries, and so on," says Allison Kawa, Psy.D., a Los Angeles child and adolescent psychologist. It's hard not to take this new phase personally, but the challenge for you then is to let your kid have some time by herself while continuing to keep her safe. Luckily, it's easy to strike that balance.
"It's essential for kids this age to have a space where they can be completely by themselves, can sing out loud and not be heard, perfect their dance moves, or look in the mirror without someone peering over their shoulder," points out Elizabeth Goodenough, Ph.D., editor of Secret Spaces of Childhood. One way to do that is to grant your child some time alone in his room with the door closed -- but not locked. "Respect his privacy by knocking and then allowing a reasonable amount of time before entering the room," advises Boston pediatrician Thomas Seman, M.D. But also let him know he can't lock the door in case there's an emergency and you need to get in quickly.
If other kids are over, it makes sense to leave the door open for at least part of the time, since kids in a group are more likely to try inappropriate things, like playing baseball indoors or making a mess with art supplies, than they would if they were alone. With your child's input, you can designate other areas of your home as privacy zones: a backyard playhouse, for instance, or a tent in the family room. And if your child shares a bedroom, allow him a certain amount of alone time there each week (a privilege you can offer each child in the room after the age of 7 or so).
Whenever safety is an issue, your child's need for privacy has to take a backseat -- especially when the Internet is involved. Don't let her go online without adult supervision (easier to do when the computer stays in a well-trafficked area like the kitchen or family room), and consider installing Internet-browsing software, such as Net Nanny or Safe Eyes, which allows you to filter certain URLs and allow her to visit others -- her favorite gaming sites, for instance. Kids this age are likely to be curious about non-gaming activities, like chat rooms, as well. With your child's input, you can find sites that are safe and kid-appropriate. Help her understand that you're not restricting her Internet access to be controlling but to keep her safe. "You can explain that being online is like hanging out with people in Halloween costumes. You can never be sure whom you're talking to unless you know them in real life, and sometimes adults with bad intentions try to trick people by pretending to be a kid," says Dr. Kawa. Let her know too that certain info should never be shared online, including her age, last name, school, and e-mail and home addresses.
Talk often with your child, but don't expect -- or demand -- that he tell you everything. It's normal for him to want to keep a part of his day, and his thoughts, private. Of course, if you're worried that he's being silent about something critical -- if he seems anxious or out of sorts but insists that all is fine -- Dr. Kawa advises asking gentle, open-ended questions. Say "It looks like you might have had a bad day; what's going on?" Overall, it's important to be a good listener and to keep in touch with teachers who can offer information and perspective.
At 7 or 8, many kids take offense at the idea of anyone seeing them naked. Resist the urge to say "But I've seen you undressed since you were a baby!" -- and honor her need for privacy. If you're uneasy with her being alone in the tub or the shower behind a closed door, leave the door ajar; if necessary, you can sit outside the bathroom and chat. You may think it's silly for your child not to let you see her body, but keep in mind that she's starting to think of it as hers alone, which is a natural step in the long march toward becoming an independent person.
Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Parents magazine.