The Problem: I found out my tween keeps a diary. I’m so curious to know what she writes about, especially because she doesn’t share much with us. I’d also like to know if anything serious is going on that we should be alerted to. Is it OK for me to look through her diary? And, if I find something alarming, how do I handle that?
The Expert: Suvi H. Miller, LCSW, owner of The Child Assessment and Training Center of Denver.
The Solution: One of the greatest challenges of parenting is figuring out the balance between providing your child enough room to grow into a happy, successful, and independent person and giving enough support and safety to get them there. How much do we need to know about what they do every day? How much do we let them figure out on their own? What if they don’t come to us when they are in trouble?
Children need to trust and rely on their parents. And parents need to provide opportunities for children to build trust through experiences. So, keep the following in mind before you open your child’s diary:
Privacy vs. Secrecy
Wanting privacy doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something to hide. Secrecy may involve fear or shame. Privacy may mean a child just wants a boundary respected for something that is theirs alone.
Curiosity vs. Concern
Before you decide whether you’ll breach your child’s privacy, ask yourself: What’s the intention? Are you just curious about what your child is up to? Or are you genuinely concerned about your child’s safety—worried about bullying, drug use, or mental health?
If you have real concern about your child’s well-being, breaching their trust may be difficult but important. If you feel left out because your child isn’t confiding in you like she used to, a breach of her privacy will feel violative, and may be hard to repair.
Your child should know you’re going to check her texts or other social media periodically. Helping your child make good decisions with technology is part of parenting in the 21st century, and not a breach of privacy. However, does your child have the expectation that a diary would be private? That parents won’t go through her backpack or other things? Having a conversation with your child ahead of time about what you believe is private, and not, helps build and maintain trust.
What if I find something of concern?
Talk to your child first, before taking any action. You may feel the need to do something with what you discover, but your child should be part of that process. They should hear from you why you were concerned, why you took the action you did, and what you’re going to do next. Demonstrating good communication helps model what we expect from them as well.
—Edited by Courtney Drake-McDonough