Dear Dr. Wes & Marissa: We've been worried about our teenager. I won't give the details, but she's done some things that concern us. We've been reading her diary, and things are really pretty bad. Now we have to figure out how to respond, but the way we got our information makes that difficult. How should we proceed?
Marissa: I regret to inform you that you have just killed any chance of this situation going well. Not to say that it is ever easy to approach your children about behavior you disapprove of, but the fact that you went behind her back and violated her privacy puts you in a very difficult position.
By reading her diary you have ruined her trust. Children need to know that their home can be their place of solitude and safe haven. Now that you have breeched that wall of trust, whatever good intentions you might have had will be overshadowed by your actions. Of course you want to help your children, but this should not have been your way to find out what is going on in her life.
There is only one thing that you really can do at this point, and that is to sit her down and tell her how you found the information and how you feel about what is going on in her life. By telling her that you are sorry for going through her things your chances of reaching through to her are greatly increased.
I wish that you had stated what kind of things were going on. "Really pretty bad," can be interpreted differently. One thing that I am very curious to know is whether she did anything in the past that indicated she would be hiding things from you. What made you want to read through her diary in the first place?
Though it might make parents cringe, there are going to be many things in your children's lives that you never know about. Whether that is a good or bad thing is hard to determine.
I hope that in the end you will realize that spying on your daughter is not something you should ever do again unless it is absolutely necessary. Your daughter will eventually have to get over the fact that you read her diary, but I'm sure it will take some time. In the meanwhile, I wish you the best of luck with whatever situation she is involved in.
Wes: It's called Double Take because Marissa and I don't completely agree on some topics. Before I dissent, however, let me agree that spying on kids' private writings is usually a big mistake. However, I would argue (very reluctantly) that there are a few times when it may be justified.
The goal of adolescence is to get out alive, childless, educated, disease-free and without an addiction or a serious criminal record. Thus, before spying on your child, you have to decide whether the information you gather is likely to be a) concerning enough to justify an otherwise unethical behavior on your part; and b) worth risking your relationship with your teenager as Marissa has so aptly discussed. I think you should also ponder why it has become necessary to take such measures. If you haven't set a foundation for dialogue already, you may have missed your chance for a better solution.
For example, if your child has a serious drug addiction, then a part of the treatment plan is for privacy to go out the window. That's a topic for another column, but for now consider "serious addiction" to include habitual use of cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, inhalants, crack, etc. Whether marijuana and alcohol use justifies this level of spying is related to the use pattern and level of impairment you see in your teen. In any situation where addiction is concerned, however, I'd opt for a urine analysis before I'd read a diary.
Regarding sex, if you believe your teen is living on the edge, having badly protected sex, having multiple partners, or exposing him/herself to disease, you have some obligation to get to the bottom of the matter. Here the only useful test is for pregnancy or STDs, and that is closing the barn door after the cows have stampeded out. If you really have probable cause to fear this, spying may become necessary.
If serious crime or violence is involved, especially suicidal ideations or "hit lists" of kids that your teen would like to knock off (I wish I were exaggerating), you are justified in being more aggressive in order to save your child.
It is always better to sit down and talk about these issues, get the truth on the table and seek help as a family. If matters are this serious, you will need to depend on your relationship with your teen even more than if they are not. Thus, spying should be the very last thing parents try, and they should feel guilty at every turn in doing it. Unfortunately, it is often the case in such families that kids have long since shut out their parents, bringing us to the final problem with espionage - the one you are facing today.
There is a story from World War II that is apparently a myth, but it illustrates your current dilemma. It was long thought that Winston Churchill learned of the 1940 plan to bomb Coventry, England, in advance. However, he did nothing to prepare the citizens because to do so would have revealed the fact that the German Enigma code had been broken. This would have allowed the Germans to reconfigure their equipment to avoid detection, causing even more harm in the long run. You are in a similar position. If you reveal what you have learned and confront your daughter, you will create a serious breach in the relationship from which you may never recover. Your influence will be shot. If you keep quiet you will have all of the knowledge but nothing to do with it.
In resolving this dilemma I would offer the same advice I would have given Churchill: You'd better be sure that the end justifies the means. If your daughter is in imminent danger, then you should reveal your secret and get her help. She'll hate you now and love you much later. If the problems are not really as severe as you suggest, then perhaps you should not act on this information, should cease gathering any more of it, and instead find a more ethical way to bring this concern to your daughter's attention.
Next Week: An 18-year-old can't get over a guy who can't get over his girlfriend.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Marissa Ballard is a Lawrence High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.