I recently received this question from a mum who found herself in a dilemma after snooping: ‘I read my daughter’s journal a few days ago, and I found out that she was self-harming. I was SO SHOCKED!!! She has been using my nail scissors in the bathroom which always go missing. Do I tell her that I read her journal and break her trust? How do I approach this?’
Mums usually go looking for information on their teenager’s phone or journal when they know that something isn’t right. They know they shouldn’t snoop, but curiosity and concern get the better of them. They are always well intended, but often a little misdirected. We think the discovery is going to help us parent our child, but all it does is load us up with an extra dilemma to deal with.
If mums would just listen and trust their gut instincts, they wouldn’t have to snoop!
I suggest that we be content to ‘intuitively know’ without knowing all the facts. The interesting thing is that knowing the facts doesn’t usually change the way we parent our kids. What it does do is give us the confidence (or ammunition) to do exactly what we thought we should be doing in the first place.
So, what are we really doing? We are hunting for validation. If we would only validate ourselves by reassuring ourselves that our gut instincts are likely right, we wouldn’t have to break our young people’s trust.
Once we have snooped we can’t un-see what we have just seen, so we now have a dilemma. A parent’s knee-jerk reaction may be to immediately confront their son or daughter with their discovery. However, I encourage you to give it a few days and then decide objectively what is the best for them.
You might feel a range of emotions including anger, sadness, frustration, helplessness, shame, guilt or even disgust. It is normal to feel strong emotions, but you need to be careful not to misdirect them towards your son or daughter. Focus on being the parent, and if that means holding off telling them, do that. Secrets aren’t good for relationships, but neither is adding stress on top of a stressful or delicate situation. Please play the smart card rather than the emotional card.
There are times when direct conversations are not only important, but critical. Young people are often waiting for parents to wade into their world with honesty, showing that they are not blind or ignorant to their situation. Conversations that move things forward in a positive direction are powerful when done well.
There are also times when young people aren’t ready to talk about it. If you don’t feel they are ready to talk, don’t push a confession. Any time I have worked with mild self-harmers I have always ignored the self-harm itself unless a young person has wanted to talk about it. Why? I recognise that self-harm is often clouded with secrecy and shame and that pushing conversations is not often useful.
That means, if you find a razor in your daughter’s room with dry blood on it or you are concerned about your son’s reckless concern for his safety, you may be better having a conversation about their mood or wellbeing, rather than the razor you found or the bruise you saw. Don’t ignore your young person’s mental health but be smart about how you approach it.
A simple conversation about your concern that starts with any one of these lines may be all it takes to open up communication:
- I am concerned about you
- I want you to know that I am here if you want to talk
- If you want to talk to anyone, even if it’s not me, I will organise that for you
- How can I best support you right now?
You may have to offer this support over and over, but if you keep offering it, chances are that one day your young person will take you up on it. The alternative of coming in with ‘all guns blazing’ is likely to be counter-productive, and will possibly even backfire. ‘Soft and close’, parents! My advice is always: ‘soft and close’.
RECOMMENDED READING: You can find more on this topic in Michelle’s book ‘Self-Harm: Why Teens Do It and What Parents Can Do To Help”