August 06, 2020 13 min read

As a parent, it is only natural to wonder about what your child writes in their journal. A journal can be a window to the inner workings of their mind, as well as the struggles they might be going through. But even if taking a look might be informative, is it something you should do?

In most cases, parents should refrain from reading their child’s journal. Reading their journal is a violation of trust and undermines healthy communication between parent and child. Parents should only read their child’s journal if they have good reason to be concerned about their immediate safety.

Whether you choose to read your child’s journal can have a lasting effect on your relationship and the way your child views you as a parental figure. Consider all the following information before you make a final decision.

The Pros and Cons of Reading Your Child’s Journal

When it comes to critical parental decisions, it can be useful to identify the positives and negatives associated with each choice. Weighing the pros and cons allows you to view the situation from multiple perspectives and make decisions from an informed and unbiased point of view, which is often more challenging to do when children are involved. Here are some of the pros and cons of reading your child’s journal:

Pros

  • You might learn some valuable information.
  • You might better understand your child.
  • You might learn of dangers or concerns.
  • You might gain awareness of a situation where your child does not know how to ask you for help.

Cons

  • You might be violating their trust.
  • It is an intrusion of their “safe space.”
  • You might incorrectly interpret what you read.
  • You might learn something that is not meant for you.
  • You might be bothered by something you read that you are unable to address.
  • You might not be equipped to deal with what you read.
  • Your child probably does not want you to read their private thoughts.
  • It may hamper your child’s emotional development.
  • It disrespects parent-child boundaries.
  • It might inhibit authentic communication.
  • If your child finds out that you read their journal, they might stop writing in their journal altogether.

Why You Should Not Read Your Child’s Journal

It should be pretty clear from the pros and cons list that the negatives outweigh the positives, but it can be helpful to break down and understand the reasoning. The following sections explain in detail why you should not read your child’s journal.

It Violates Their Trust in You

Unless your child is writing a pre-designated public journal, it goes without saying that they want to keep their thoughts to themselves. By writing about something in their journal instead of talking about it with you, they are passively saying that they want to deal with it on their own and do not want your input or help. They are trusting you to be okay with that.

Mutual trust lays the foundation for a healthy parent-child relationship. Parents must trust their children to come to them when they need help, and the child must trust the parent to be there when they need them. Reading their journal undermines that concept entirely and devalues whatever trust you do have in your relationship.

Trust is an integral part of all relationships and is something that must be taught. As you and your child bond, they learn how to trust and why it is important. A child who does not learn how to bond or trust will likely struggle as an adult, suffering from insecurities and trust issues. By reading their journal, you are essentially telling your child that you do not trust them and that they cannot trust you.

You Are Intruding on Their Safe Space

Journals provide a private and safe zone for people to explore their innermost thoughts. One of the great things about a private journal is that you do not have to share it with anyone if you do not want to. Journaling is a sure way to expel thoughts and emotions in an environment where you know for sure that you will not be judged.

Moreover, a journal acts as a proper space for your child to talk about situations that they cannot discuss with you—perhaps because they explicitly involve you. For example, let’s say that you and your child get into a heated argument over their lackluster performance in school or a disciplinary decision you made. It would be reasonable and even expected for them to write about the situation in their journal.

In fact, journaling is a healthy way for them to flush out their emotions and vent about the situation. It is also a fantastic strategy forreducing stress and anxiety. As a parent, it is within your best interest for your child to have such a place. If your child feels as if their writing is not private, they may not write in their journal at all and lose a valuable coping tool.

You Are Disrespecting Parent-Child Boundaries

Reading a child’s journal is an example of intrusive parenting, which can lead children to be overly self-critical. As a response to restrictive parenting styles, children often start hiding information or lying.

While you may care very deeply about your child’s well-being, it is essential to their development that you maintain certain boundaries. Your child needs space to be their own person and confront their thoughts and problems independently.

Reading their journal and possibly approaching them about it may cause them to think that they cannot handle problems on their own. Such an act can have a lasting impact on their confidence and sense of control over their life.

You May Incorrectly Interpret What You Read

Often, journal writing is fragmented or incomplete. Journals are primarily a place to throw out ideas without having to explain them or flush them out. Most of the time, what people write is not meant to be read. It will likely be missing the context needed to understand the meaning or importance of what is written entirely.

As an outsider, you lack the necessary information to see the whole picture. You might get the wrong idea about something you read or analyze it poorly. Doing so could have drastic, negative consequences, and create problems where there are none.

For example, you might try and butt into a situation that your child is handling well on their own, gaining valuable problem-solving skills and a sense of independence. Or you might make a big deal out of something that was exaggerated in their journal and does not require your involvement at all.

It Could Inhibit True Communication

Having an open and honest dialogue with your child is an essential part of a healthy parent-child relationship. Many adolescent issues or challenges are overcome by parental advice, support, or involvement. For example, one of the most effective barriers to teenage drug use is feeling like they can talk to their parents when they have questions. Therefore, it is essential that your child feels willing and able to speak with you no matter the reason.

Reading your child’s journal can hinder communication in the following ways:

  1. Breaking their trust may discourage them from coming to you with their issues.
  2. They may feel as if you do not respect their space and be reluctant to let you in.
  3. Access to their journal may discourage you from asking them directly when you have questions about their life.

The third point is especially important and often overlooked because of its subconscious nature. If you have questions about their involvement with drugs, social relationships, or other developmental subjects, you may be tempted to avoid a tough or uncomfortable conversation by finding the answers in their journal.

In reality, discussing with your child about such topics could be helpful to them. With access to their innermost thoughts, you may use the journal in place of actual conversation. Reading their journal may be nothing more than a handicap in a parent-child relationship that lacks communication.

What Does It Mean If Your Child Leaves Their Journal Out?

Sometimes a child may leave their journal out where anyone can read it, making it even more tempting to peek. But just because they leave their journal out and vulnerable to inspection, does not mean you should help yourself to their private thoughts. They are not necessarily okay with you reading it, nor does it signify that they want you to read it.

Reasons why they might have left their journal out include:

  • They simply forgot to put it away or were in a rush.
  • They do not view their journal as something highly secretive that needs to be protected.
  • They feel they have nothing to hide.

When your child leaves their journal out, it might be a sign that they trust you not to read it. If so, you would not want to violate the trust that you are lucky to have earned in the first place. Try your best to resist temptation, even if they leave their journal out.

A Cry for Help

As with many things, there is one caveat. Some teenagers who suffer from depression or suicidal ideations may leave their journal out purposefully as a cry for help. If your child displays worrisome symptoms, then you may want to read their journal in case it is their way of calling out to you. Signs that your child might be suffering and asking for help include:

  • Withdrawing from people and retreating within themselves. They might stop hanging out with friends or appear to lose interest in activities they once enjoyed.
  • They are acting uncharacteristically emotional. They might often get angry, cry easily, or overreact to things.
  • They have a sudden change in personality or appearance.

As with many parental decisions, it will come down to a judgment call. Make your decision based on all the available information you have regarding your child’s mental state. While it is vital not to break their trust and allow them to be independent, in cases of self-harm, it may be best to err on the side of caution and seek out the information you need to help them.

A Word on Consent

Another notion to keep in mind is that even if your child lets someone else read their journal, it does not mean that you have permission to read it as well. If you think that they may be open to letting you read their journal, you should ask them about it. They may be inclined to agree if they have previously shared their journal with others and if you give them a good reason, such as wanting to understand them better.

The Only Times It Might Be Okay to Read Your Child’s Journal

Most people would agree that one of your primary jobs as a parent is to keep your children safe. Thus, it can sometimes be acceptable to read your child’s journal under the guise of parental protection. Such situations include:

  • If your child is depressed and requires outside help, as explained above.
  • If you suspect that your child might be in danger or their well-being is threatened.
  • If you have already approached them about a seriously concerning situation and believe they purposefully lied to you and will continue to do so.

You can think of the guidelines as something like confidentiality in a professional therapy setting. Whatever a patient reveals to their therapist is kept between the two parties. Though laws vary from state to state, the general exceptions are:

  1. If a patient might harm themselves
  2. If a patient might be a danger to others

You can use the same rules for deciding whether to read your child’s journal. An extreme example of the latter exception is a father from Maryland who uncovered his daughter's detailed plan to shoot up her high school by reading her diary. In that situation, reading his child’s journal possibly saved lives.

No matter the situation, reading your child’s journal should be a last resort—after you have already attempted other ways of handling the situation. You should always seek to ask your child directly and try to solve the problem out in the open and with honesty.

Unfortunately, there are times where speaking with your child is simply not that easy. Whatever the reason may be, sometimes they will not be perfectly honest with you. If you suspect that your child is lying to you, and you are genuinely concerned about their safety or the safety of others, it may be the right move to read their journal.

Though you will have to earn back their trust in the long run, you may be helping them in the short term or potentially saving their life. Sometimes getting your child the support they need, such as placing them in therapy, is more important than your relationship with them, which can be repaired over time if need be.

Check Your Motivations

If you are still struggling with whether you should read your child’s journal, you should analyze your motivations for wanting to read it. If you are driven by curiosity or your own benefit, then, hands down, you should not read your child’s journal. However, if your primary concern is to protect or aid your child, then you may have valid grounds to read their journal.

To help understand your reasoning, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • What do you hope to get out of reading their journal?
  • How will you use the information that you find?
  • Would your child be okay with you reading their journal?
  • How will reading their journal benefit your child, and how will it help you?
  • Is there another way that you can find out the information you need to help your child with their problems?

If your primary reasons for reading your child's journal are not for your child's sake, then it is pretty safe to say that you should respect your child's privacy and resist peeking.

So You Read Your Child’s Journal—Now What?

If you decide that reading your child’s journal is necessary, you should go in with a plan for what to do afterward. There are three productive ways to use the information you find wisely:

  1. Tell your child that you read their journal and try to open a dialogue with them.If you tell your child that you read their journal, make sure that they know you did it out of love. Make it very clear that you only did it out of a need to protect them and that you were concerned about their well-being. Your child must not feel like you just wanted to spy on them.
  2. Do not tell your child that you read their journal, but off-handedly try to start a conversation about what you read.Instead of openly admitting to your child that you read their journal, you can start up a conversation and nudge it in a direction that addresses some of the concerns you gathered from reading their journal. If you decide to go this route, try not to make it too apparent that you know more than you are supposed to.
  3. Do not attempt to have a conversation at all about what you read.Perhaps the initial concerns that led you to read their journal ended up being alleviated. If that is the case, you may not need to have a conversation at all. Instead, adjust your parenting to try and accommodate your newfound knowledge.

If you end up reading their journal, make sure you treat what you read with a grain of salt. As mentioned earlier, you do not have the full context and could easily misinterpret what you read.

Whatever you do, do not enter a discussion with an aggressive demeanor and making accusations. Refrain from passing judgment on your child’s thoughts and actions. The goal is to be a source of support and help for your child.

Alternatives to Reading Your Child’s Journal

As a parent, it is perfectly natural to worry and be protective of your child. Reading their journal might seem like a simple answer to knowing what is going on in their life; however, it comes with consequences as previously described. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternative strategies that you can implement to stay on top of what is happening in your child’s life.

Stay Involved in Their Life

One of the best ways to keep tabs on your child is to simply be involved with their life and cultivate the type of relationship that would lead them to talk to you about it. Schedule family activities and invite their friends to join you. Make time to attend their extra-curricular activities, such as sports competitions, dance recitals, or putting on a play. If you take on an active role in their life, your child will be more likely to tell you about their thoughts and experiences.

Encourage Communication

In an ideal world, your child will come to you whenever they have issues or questions. To encourage such a practice, focus your efforts on developing a close bond that inspires open communication. Here are some ways you can build communication skills between you and your child:

  • Be a good, active listener, and let your child know that you are interested in what they have to say.
  • Set aside time for talking and listening to each other.
  • Express appreciation and positively encourage your child when they come to you for help or tell you the truth.

Knowing that your child trusts and relies on you will help set your mind at ease when it comes to typical parental worries that may make you want to peek in your child’s journal.

Pre-Emptive Parenting

One of the best things you can do for your child is to prepare them for situations before they ever happen so they can appropriately respond in the moment. Talk to your child about drugs and sex before they encounter them. Encourage them to ask you questions and roleplay scenarios, so they feel more prepared and comfortable dealing with them.

You can also tell them stories from your childhood so that they can learn from your experiences. Being open with what you have gone through will encourage them to do the same with you. Additionally, preparing your child for all sorts of potential scenarios will help you sleep at night and deter you from wanting to read their journal.

Keeping A Public and Private Journal

For some parents, the temptation to read their child’s journal is compelling. Adolescents and teenagers lead busy lives and, try as we might, it is not always possible to spend as much time with them as we would like. A snapshot of their mind and life through a journal is an appealing way to get to know them. It is also an opportunity for your child to communicate things to you that they might have trouble saying directly.

As such, you may want to consider proposing a public journal to your child. Suggest that they keep two journals: a private journal that you promise not to read, and a second journal that is open to you.

 

For the former, consider buying them a journal with a lock and key to help them feel secure. Regarding the public journal, explain the mutual benefit of communication and that they should not feel pressured to write about anything that they do not want to. A public journal is about open communication, a similar strategy to writing letters to each other.

A Final Word

Children experience a plethora of hazards as they grow up, especially in the modern era. As a parent, you may feel inclined to protect your child from anything that might hurt them or to deal with their problems for them. However, overcoming adversity, obstacles, and other challenges are unavoidable parts of growing up. It is your job to give your child the tools to deal with life’s challenges on their own.

With strong and effective parenting, you should not even feel the need to read your child’s journal. Sure, you might still wonder about the specifics of their writing. Still, harmless curiosity is far healthier and easier to deal with compared to the sense of urgency or desperation you may feel if you do not think your child will come to you when they are in trouble.

Ideally, your child will feel as if they do not have to talk to you about what they write in their journal but can if they want or need to. To foster this type of relationship, you should not read your child’s journal, even if they leave it out. Only read their journal if you feel like they might be in severe trouble or danger. Following these guidelines will help ensure that you cultivate a healthy parent-child relationship and build a robust foundation that allows your child to grow into a confident and independent adult.


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