I remember the day well. I returned home from high school to find my mother sitting on my bed. Nothing was out of place save her expression. She told me to sit down. I chose the desk chair. What was this about?
She’d been “tidying” up my room, she said, when she “stumbled” upon my diary. I immediately raised a brow, incredulous and already angry and on the defensive. My mother never cleaned my room. And my diary was purposely buried in my rickety desk beneath stacks of bound notebooks, loose papers and other assorted crap. It was not the sort of thing one fell upon by accident.
She relayed how disturbed she was about what she’d read. Then, she immediately grounded me. For an entire month. There was no thoughtful discussion. There was no reflective discourse. From my point of view, she’d violated my trust and punished me for it.
I raged. I might have even screamed, “I hate you!” I’m sure I did.
The fact is, I was a troubled teenager for reasons too numerous to list. I was never into drugs, but I did regularly go out boozing on the weekends—and sometimes driving, too. I was in over my head when it came to boys and sex. I was doing everything in my power to grow up and get out of a home that put a capital “D” in dysfunction. I was acting out.
I realize now that I was also desperately, urgently seeking my mother’s attention. I shaved my head and ran around with the punks and the goth kids. I draped myself in black, lined my eyes with dark kohl pencils, and bleached my hair into spiky white horns. I had a flurry of boyfriends, and more than one was too old for me, too fast for me. I was waving my freak flag. I might as well have been screaming: PAY ATTENTION TO ME, WOULD YOU?
So I understand why she sought out my diary for clues, even if the reasons behind my rebellion were strewn everywhere, and right in front of her face. She knew how the divorce, and how both she and my father had mishandled it, had done so much damage, and not just to me but to my siblings. She knew other things, as well. She knew I was self-destructing. She witnessed my devolution in real time.
I’ve always been a writer. And my journal must have seemed like a map to discovery. She went looking for some glaring “X” to mark the spot and place blame. Instead, she focused on distracting (if serious) detours—how I drove the car, wasted on beer, home from a football game; how I messed around with some boy—and dead-ended all exploration with these misdeeds. She didn’t read these offenses as markings on the trail that might lead her back to her daughter, the one who was purposely leaving prickly breadcrumbs for her to follow. She saw only messy scatterings and made me pay for them.
You might be surprised, but I can’t promise I’ll never sneak a look at my own daughters’ future diaries, despite how violated I felt all those years ago. My girls are still young, not yet at the age to worry about such serious transgressions. But teenagers do stupid things. And my kids will be teenagers in the not-so-distant future. So if I’m worried about the way they’re acting—or acting out—I admit I’d stop at nothing to discover why.
I’m sure my mother’s intentions were not so different.
I hope that if I do feel the need to go on such a fact-finding mission, I’ll own this indiscretion. I’ll apologize directly for crossing a sacred line of privacy. I won’t feign an excuse of cleaning, or stumbling, or accidental discoveries. I’ll say, I’m worried about you. I can’t seem to reach you. This is why I’ve done what I’ve done. Can we talk? I can’t punish you for your private admissions. But I can ask you what they’re about. I can ask you how I can help. Because I love you.
At the end of the day, kids are open books, even if their diaries are hidden away. They don’t usually have much insight into their actions, not yet. They’re pure id in the teen years; their behavior is a direct manifestation of their mental state. And if all you see is turbulence, you need to ask yourself why. You need to find out. Do what you must; then ask questions.
Most important, listen to the answers. Your kid will likely write the script for you both to follow.