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Q: The other day I came across my 13-year-old daughter's diary and peeked inside. Yikes! She wrote about some kids who were drinking alcohol at a recent party I thought was chaperoned, and she also wrote about how she thinks about sex and "hot" boys all the time. Isn't she awfully young for all of this? What should I do? --A panicked mom
Dear Panicked Mom: Now you know why people say, "What you don't know can't hurt you." Finding out what's really going on in a teenager's mind can be pretty scary! But don't panic; you're actually very lucky. What you read is pretty normal stuff for a 13-year-old who needs to psychologically separate from her family and lead an independent life with her peers. Forming an identity is one of the most important tasks in adolescence, and that includes a healthy sexual identity. In addition, in our society, adolescence is the time when kids are exposed to or experiment with smoking, drugs and alcohol. Wouldn't it be much, much worse if your diary discoveries revealed that your daughter is depressed, has no friends, never gets invited to parties, and is fearful and disgusted by even the thought of sex?
Of course, I'm hoping that you've already spoken to your teen about all these tough topics. (Around 9- to 11-years-old is the best time to cover these issues and reinforce your values.) If you haven't, then reading your daughter's diary is a loud and clear wake-up call!
But if you want your daughter to continue to trust you and confide in you, do not confront her about reading her diary! This will only make her feel betrayed, cause her to hide her thoughts and feelings more deeply, and create a rift between you that will be hard to repair. Your relationship with your daughter needs to be based on mutual affection, trust and respect, and that includes respecting her privacy. (Would you want her to read your diary while looking through your drawers?) The only exception to this rule is when you're pretty sure your teen deliberately left some information prominently displayed, hoping you will read it. Even then, you need to say first, "I've noticed you left this letter from your friend, Jessica, on the kitchen table. Is that because you want me to read it?"
Instead of confrontation, use what you've already learned through her diary to alert you to the challenges your daughter is facing. First, make a resolution to talk with your daughter at least twice a week about her life, including her party life and her romantic life. Secondly, be sure to check more carefully on the chaperone arrangements for parties and other events away from home. Third, always know where your teen is, who she's with, and when she's returning.
When talking to your teen, try to make the conversation a communication, not a criticism. "Just say no" is not likely to be a good starting point. Instead, use information about her friends, controversial TV programs, or film star scandals in the news to jump-start conversations about the dangers of substance abuse and sexual risks in today's times. And be careful about sharing your own drug, alcohol or sexual history, particularly if you had an experimental and/or daring past. "No one in my class was a virgin by junior year," or "I was a real pothead in high school," are not helpful experiences for your teen to hear if you want to encourage responsible caution and good judgment.
Last, but not least, if your preteen or teen is doing well in life, (school achievements, stable mood, good friends, healthy sleeping and eating, respect for family rules, etc.) you don't need to peek at her diary for information, she's showing you that her life is fine. And if she's not doing well, (school failures, social isolation, moodiness, lies, defiance, insomnia, eating disorders, etc.) signs of her struggles will be all around you. A parent who needs to peek is a parent who feels she doesn't really know what's going on in her teen's mind. A better way to ensure the health and welfare of your preteen or teen is to keep talking each and everyday! Good luck!
Dr. Siegler is the director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent and Family Studies in New York City, and the author of two award-winning books for parents, "What Should I Tell the Kids? A Parent's Guide to Real Problems in the Real World," and "The Essential Guide to the New Adolescence: How to Raise an Emotionally Healthy Teenager." She is married and the mother of two children.