Parent Reading a Teen’s Journal

Is it acceptable for parents to read their teenage daughter's journal or diary or to go through things in her room if they have reasons to suspect that she might be involved in some kind of unhealthy or immoral activity? If so, how should we handle the situation if we do find evidence that something disturbing is going on?

We can’t respond definitively without knowing a good deal more about you, your daughter, and the specifics of the case. But in a very broad sense, the answer would be yes: as a mom or dad, you do have a right to “check-up” on your kids when circumstances seem to merit it. The guiding principle here is that of a parent’s duty to protect his or her child from dangers, temptations, and threats of any kind. This is one of your primary responsibilities as a mother or a father.

It’s easy to make serious blunders in this area, of course, but they’re forgivable as long as your actions are motivated by love. This is the issue you need to resolve in your own mind before you read a single word of your daughter’s journal. Examine your own heart and ask yourself why you feel a need to conduct this kind of investigation. If the honest truth is that you’re being driven to snoop by anxiety, paranoia, or a desire to control, make up your mind to deal with these issues before proceeding any further. It’s crucial to be sure that you are acting solely on the basis of genuine care and concern.

From this point forward we’d encourage you to think in terms of four simple principles: connection, context, conversation, and consequences. These principles are absolutely essential when it comes to parenting teens successfully. The first two – connection and context – are also important to the process of evaluating the validity of your suspicions and your reasons for feeling uneasy about your daughter’s behavior.

Connection is all about the history of your relationship with your child. What kind of a bond exists between the two of you? Do you have a good understanding ? Do you talk and touch base regularly? Has she been accustomed to having mom check up on her in a loving way from time to time since she was small? Or is there rather a sense of estrangement and distrust that has been allowed to creep into your interactions with one another? This will have a huge bearing on the way you view your daughter and what you imagine to be going on in the “secret” areas of her life.

Context has to do with your perception of her character. Is she, generally speaking, a “good girl,” or is she not? Are your suspicions based on established patterns of negative behavior, or is she on the contrary the kind of kid for whom “unhealthy or immoral activity” would be a serious exception to the rule? These considerations can have a big impact on your handling of the situation.

If on the basis of connection and context you conclude that there is serious cause for alarm – and if, as a result, you dip into your daughter’s journal and find your worst fears confirmed – you will need to sit down and have a serious conversation with her. You can probably expect the issue of privacy to come up very early in the discussion. A good way to handle this is to anticipate her protests by making the first move. Start with a statement like, “We need to talk about your right to privacy and my respect for it.” Then say, “We also need to discuss some things I happened to read in your journal the other day. Let’s deal with that first.” If she counters with, “You have no business going through my things! It’s my stuff and my room!” you can calmly explain that, technically, it isn’t – it’s actually your room in your house. If, on the other hand, her objections seem reasonable, don’t be afraid to say so. You can admit that you are capable of making mistakes too, provided you underscore the point that your actions were motivated by a desire to protect her. Whatever happens, always come back to the idea that you did what you did out of love.

If “something disturbing” has indeed been going on, the final step is to implement appropriate consequences. Obviously, we aren’t in a position to tell you exactly what this will mean. Everything depends upon the circumstances. Maybe your daughter has been involved with a certain individual or group of individuals who have had a negative influence upon her behavior. If so, you’ll have to make sure that those ties are cut. Other measures, such as grounding or social media restrictions, may come into play if they seem appropriate. You might also want to consider engaging the assistance of a professional counselor.

It’s possible, of course, that the problem you’re facing isn’t a question of morality or safety at all. Perhaps your daughter is just struggling with emotional issues, relational challenges, spiritual doubts, or questions of self-esteem. In that case, you may want to adopt a subtler approach. It might not be necessary to mention the diary entry at all. Instead, the next time you have a chance to talk, try touching base artfully by saying something like, “How are things going with the girls at school?” or “Do you ever struggle with feelings of discouragement? I know I did when I was your age.” In other words, make skillful use of the information you picked up from the journal without disclosing where you got it. This is all part of the process of building a healthy working relationship with your child.

If you think it might be helpful, we invite you to call our Counseling staff. They are all trained and licensed in the field of clinical psychology, and you can speak with them for a free consultation.


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