Should I Read My Child's Journal

The answer is no.  Not unequivocally no…but almost.

Girls and boys need a place to process their feelings—all of their feelings.  This includes their frustration and even anger toward you, as their parents.  (Yes, they will get angry with you from time to time while they live in your home). 

If they process their anger toward you, it’s considered disrespect.  You don’t really want them processing those feelings with their friends.  They need a safe place to feel and express those feelings, away from your eyes and ears.

Many a parent (sorry, moms, this is most often you) says to us, “I’m worried about my daughter.  I think I need to read her journal.”  Or, “My son left his journal just sitting out.  I think he subconsciously wanted me to read it.” 

We could talk a long time about the inner workings of the adolescent brain.  But, suffice it to say, there are a few things going on—and not going on in there.  One of those is that their memories malfunction.  He didn’t intend to leave his journal out.  He just forgot.  Don’t use that as an excuse to invade his privacy.  He needs it—she needs it—in this vulnerable, tumultuous time in their lives.

We ask kids to journal often in counseling.    It is vital that they learn to express their emotions and don’t allow them to bottle up inside.  They need a safe place to talk about their sadness, their fears, their anger…even if that place is on the page of a journal.  We all know plenty of adults who have never learned to talk about their feelings and so those feelings are ones that follow them into adulthood—into their marriages, their workplaces and their own parenting.  Allow your child a place to put those feelings down.

“I know something is going on with my daughter and I thought I could find out by reading her journal.”  If you mean you suspect she’s been drinking or using drugs, you can find out by other methods.  Have your teenager wake you up when they come home each night so that you can see their pupils and smell their breath.  Verify they’ve gone where they say they’ve gone.  Be a good detective on who their friends are and the kinds of choices those friends are making.  There are plenty of other ways to find out if you’re child is engaging in risk-taking behavior.  I have counseled too many kids who are much more distraught over the “violation of their privacy” their parents committed by reading their journal than the actual choice they made that got them into trouble.  Don’t set yourself up to be the fall guy. 

The one caveat we would say is if you believe your child to be severely depressed.  If you are suspecting that your child may be suicidal, read their journal.  Read their notes.  Read anything you can get your hands on that would give you an indicator of the state of their heart.  They will, again, be angry at the violation of their privacy, but they’ll thank you later.

Otherwise, encourage your child and teenager to process their feelings.  Buy them a journal with a lock and make sure they know it is one space you will never invade. In our parenting classes, we tell parents that if your child writes “I hate my mom,” they will have written it in a moment of anger and forgotten it five minutes later.  But you never will.  Those words will stay with you forever.  Give them the space to feel and process their emotions.  They’ll be the better for it.  As will you and the climate of your home.