A few months ago I was standing in front of a group of parents and was asked the question, “Should I read my daughter’s journal.” The moment the words, “Absolutely” came from my lips, I knew I hadn’t given the proper qualifications for that answer, and I immediately felt I had betrayed the teens I serve, as well as my own daughter. Just as soon as the workshop ended, I told my daughter what I said. After her gasp and protest, I began to explain the qualifiers for my response, because it isn’t as easy as “yes” read it at will. I don’t recommend that one bit. So, if you were in the audience that day, pretend I started with this response instead…

Maybe you really wish she were willing to talk to you. It’s clear she has a lot on her mind, but all you ever get are one-word answers as she hurries away from you and back to her room, or behind those airpods. Every time you glance in there, her orange-and-pink journal is in front of her. You know she’s spend time writing in it and it seems to hold the secret to whatever she isn’t sharing with you… so what’s a parent to do?

Since she won’t tell you what’s happening in her life, is it wrong for you to open that journal and see what she’s saying? You are her mother, after all. You may have even bought her the journal. Since you’re concerned about her welfare, it’s not really invasive… is it?

Actually, can I be honest? Like brutally honest with you? It really is. No matter why you might choose to open her journal without her permission, and whether or not she knows about it, you are invading her privacy. You’re not respecting her or her personal space. And you’re correct that being her parent gives you certain responsibilities — and one of those responsibilities is allow her to become the adult she’s going to be. I know. It stings. You wanted me to say read at will, right? Before you move to the next article or close this article all together, can I ask you a few questions to consider?

What’s your goal with reading her journal? Why is it so important to read it? Is it simple curiosity? Is it a chance to peek behind the curtain into her most private thoughts? Maybe you’re seeking proof of misbehavior?  Because if any of these are the case, I promise you, if your goal is truly developing a deeper understanding of your daughter, there are much more effective and trust-enhancing ways to accomplish that. For real. Reading her journal will only leave you with more questions.

Can you keep the secrets within the journal? What’s in that journal is confidential, so what are you planning to do with what you might learn? If you confront or discipline her based on what’s in the journal, you may create significant harm to your relationship and drive her to other, more damaging ways to express her feelings. A journal can be a safety valve for teens. We often recommend journaling in therapy, and if you read that journal without permission, it may counteract the good and healthy ways we’ve been recommending she have an outlet to whatever is happening inside.

How do you teach her that boundaries matter? Clear boundaries are an important part of healthy relationships. If she discovers you’ve read the journal, you’ve just shown her you don’t respect hers. When is it okay to toss out boundaries? Will she treat your boundaries with respect? If the book is in her room, and closed, it’s boundaried. Without an invitation, it’s boundaried. What would you want others to do with her boundaries? How would you respond if someone entered your personal space? Do you expect her to respond any differently?

How will reading her journal be helpful and is it worth what is at risk? Journaling can be a particularly safe and effective way for teens to process experiences and feelings, helping them expand their understanding of the world around them. If your teen journals as a coping mechanism and discovers you’ve been peeking, she may stop … and then she’ll need to find a new coping mechanism. Will it be a healthy one or something defiant?

How would you feel? You may have a small box full of objects with deep personal meaning or a journal of your own in which you confess your deepest thoughts. Would you feel violated if you found your daughter looking through them? Would you be angry or hurt?

Are you afraid for her safety? If you have fears about what she’s doing, reading her journal may not necessarily give you the insight you’re hoping for. If you’re concerned she wants to hurt herself or someone else, this may be reason to read. Let me write that again: the only real justification for disregarding normal privacy is if you have a genuine fear that your child’s physical safety is in danger. Otherwise, sneaking a read of her journal will most likely bring more drawbacks and dangers than useful insight.

Instead of trying espionage, why not get better at starting conversations, be consistent and intentional with connecting in other ways, and build in time to ask the questions that linger in your mind?

Still wondering? Not sure where to start? Maybe you’ve already taken the peek and not sure what to do with what you’ve learned. Please call us. Your daughter is so worth the investment. And, let’s be honest, so is your peace of mind. Scheduling an appointment is as easy as emailing help@caretochange.org, or clicking here.

(Two books that are great resources for questions like these: The Five Love Languages and The Connected Parent.)

April Bordeau is a licensed therapist with over 25 years experience working with teens, marriages and families. She is also the founder and director of Care to Change.

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