Let’s untangle...

Through articles, podcasts, book excerpts, and downloadable bookmarks, my goal is to share practical advice and research-backed guidance that addresses the big and small challenges that come with family life.

And if you’re in search of more timely resources, Untangling 10 to 20 is my new digital subscription offering a dynamic library of video content and articles for parents, caregivers, and teens.

Become a member

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

Lisa's latest New York Times best seller is an urgently needed guide to help parents understand their teenagers’ intense and often fraught emotional lives—and how to support them through this critical developmental stage.

Under Pressure

Under Pressure

Lisa’s second New York Times best seller is a celebrated, urgently needed guide to addressing the alarming increase in anxiety and stress in girls from elementary school through college.

Untangled

Untangled

Lisa’s award-winning New York Times best seller–now available in nineteen languages–is a sane, informed, and engaging guide for parents of teenage girls.

Join today

Untangling 10 to 20 is a dynamic library of premium content designed to support anyone who is raising, working with, or caring for tweens and teens.

Become a member

Already a member?

Log in

March 22, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 73

I Saw My Daughter’s Shocking Texts. Should I Confront Her?

Episode 73

A parent discovers an alarming text about a classmate on her kid’s phone and wonders if she should confront her child. How do you address text messages that you were not meant to see? Dr. Lisa walks us though how to weigh your child’s safety with the need to build trust. When should you tell a fellow parent if you have intel on their child? Reena wonders why you shouldn’t just pick up the phone and call the other parent. Lisa explains how and when to pass along information about another child without damaging your relationship with your own.

March 22, 2022 | 27 min

Transcript | I Saw My Daughter’s Shocking Texts. Should I Confront Her?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 73: I Saw My Daughter’s Shocking Texts. Should I Confront Her?

 

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.

 

REENA: The battle continues in my house about getting a phone. I’m just not ready. I know we’ve had several episodes. I feel like it weaves through our podcasts, but what would you say are like two cardinal rules, just two things all parents should keep in mind with cell phones?

 

LISA: Well, first of all I just have to say, I love that our listeners are getting like the real time unfolding of it.

 

REENA: True.

 

LISA: Because this is exactly what it’s like for parents, like should I should, shouldn’t I? Okay, Reea, you know, like I’m going to get a tattoo, no phones in bedrooms, no phones in bedrooms, right? So that one just I feel very strongly about. I know a lot of people disagree, so I would do that, and then I would say go slow, go slow, right? Handing a phone to a kid is not like, all right, good luck,let us know when there’s a crisis. I mean like, really go slow and keep a tight rein on it, at least at the beginning.

 

REENA: I needed to hear that. I needed to hear the go slow, go slow, because we’re nearing the end of fifth grade and a lot of parents, because they’re moving on to middle school, give them a phone in fifth grade. I’m just personally not ready yet. I’m just personally not ready yet. I don’t think he needs it right now. We get these great emails from people asking about various cell phone usage and what should you do, but this was interesting. It was about a mom who saw her daughter’s text that she finds questionable and it says, ‘Hi, Lisa. I love your podcast and listen every week. Your advice is so helpful for raising teenage girls. I recently came across a text on my 14-year-old daughter’s phone. One of her good friends went to a party, got drunk and spent the night with a guy. My daughter’s reaction was what I would have hoped for. She was very shocked and was telling her she can’t do that. My question is do I ignore this text and pretend I didn’t see it since my daughter was not involved. If I tell her I saw it, she may start deleting texts from her phone, which she knows not to do. It would also just cause her to be mad at me, which I can handle, but it would be a fight where neither of us did anything wrong. I know this probably won’t be the last time something like this happens, so would love your advice on how to handle this.’ This is a great letter.

 

LISA: It’s a really good letter.

 

REENA: These are things about cell phone usage that I don’t even think about as a mom who hasn’t given a kid one yet, but first off, I would ask you, is this normal? Should parents definitely be looking at their kids’ texts?

 

LISA: Well, that’s a good question, right? Probably yes and no, depending on their kid, but I will say it could also happen, I mean, you know how somebody like leaves their cell phone right there and text pops up, like it pops up, like  it doesn’t even have to be that this parent is sneakily looking for their kids texts and came across this, like you could literally be sitting there, a text pops up and then you look at it, and you’ve read it before you’ve really thought through what you’re doing. So, I think it’s a really good question,and I think it’s a really complicated question because on the one hand, if when you hand over a phone to a kid and you say, oh, and by the way, I’m going to look at your texts when I want to, the good news is if you then happen to come across something like this, you don’t have to apologize for the fact that you see it.

 

REENA: Yeah.

 

LISA: You’ve seen at or anything like that. You can say, so remember how I said that I would look at your texts? So, I saw these texts that I’m concerned by. The other good news is if you’ve said in advance, I might look at your texts, that may be something I do, it can also help kids to use texting more carefully. You know how sometimes kids will put dumb things in texts that they shouldn’t do? You know, they’ll say something impulsive? For a parent to say, I’m going to look if I feel like looking, it’s like a speed bump for text behavior.

 

REENA: Because it gets them to think about not doing it? Mom’s going to be looking at this, I shouldn’t do it.

 

LISA: Yea, exactly, right? And so if you think about your son and getting started and he’s in the fifth or sixth grade, I would probably go at it and say, you should fully expect I will pick up and look at your phone whenever I feel like it because if everybody else can see it, I can see it because you’re in the fifth or sixth grade and that feels appropriate. Where it gets uncomfortable is, especially for kids who are really well-behaved and trustworthy and don’t have impulse control issues or, especially for older kids, they feel like, why would you need to look at my texts? And, Reena, like I actually don’t do anything online that I wouldn’t do in public, but I actually would feel super weird if my husband were looking at my texts, right?

 

REENA: Totally. I mean it’s a sense of trust too don’t you think? You know, when you have a reason to look at another adult’s texts, you know? There’s a trust issue there. But with kids,there’s constantly a trust issue there. I don’t fully feel like I’m ready to take off the training wheels on anything.

 

LISA: I think that’s right. So, I think there’s a couple different ways to walk up to this particular question. So let’s imagine, let’s start with the easy version of the story, which is the mom, who otherwise has no reason to monitor this kid’s texts and has not felt the need and probably appropriately so to say to her, just so you know, I’m going to be looking at your phone if I feel like it, is sitting there and happens to see this. I think that’s pretty straightforward, which is that she goes to the kid and says, look, I was not sneakily trying to look through your phone. I was sitting there, it popped up, I read it, we need to talk about that text. I think that’s pretty straightforward. Where it gets much, much harder is if this is a parent who has, without having had a conversation with her kid about it, is occasionally going through the kid’s phone just to check to see if there’s anything to worry about, and I think that to me feels like a more worrisome dynamic.

 

REENA: Yeah.

 

LISA: And for a couple of reasons. One is because then if you find something, now what do you do?

 

REENA: Right.

 

LISA: Right? And I’ve taken care of families like this where the parent finds something concerning, and then they’re in this terrible dilemma of, do I say something and let her know or let him know that I saw it? At which point we’ll have a big fight and also they will go underground from there. Or do I not say something and continue to monitor so I can keep getting information, right? It’s a terrible position to be in

 

REENA: So, what is the sense? Should parents have routine checks? The parent here is saying, I told her, don’t delete your texts. So, kids are smart, they’ll just delete their texts right? And if they know you’re checking regularly, should you be checking without your child knowing? How does that work? Is there a system? How do you keep an eye on it if you are getting every single text to your phone, right? Which most parents aren’t.

 

LISA: Yeah. I have no problem with parents checking their kids’ phones, especially young kids, impulsive kids, you know, kids who are still getting used to using digital technology to communicate. I think as a rule, we should be above board about it. I mean I think we should say, you know what? If everyone else can see it, I can see it too. So just so you know, I will check your phone and I need to have your password and that’s a done deal. I have no problem with it if it’s all above board, and I would say that if parents start down that path and they feel like it’s going well, they could feel comfortable starting to loosen the reins of it and, you know, you and I also both know, if you really want to try to monitor every corner of the kids social media use, I mean you have to have no job and stay up 24 hours a day trying to do that. I mean it’s not really realistic to think that you can keep total control over how your kid uses social media. That’s really hard to do. What it makes me think is if you feel the need to have total control and supervise it closely, I’m like, well, then is this kid really ready for a phone? Or is this kid really ready for a phone that they leave the house with or go to their bedroom with? You know if we’re into questions about that level of trustworthiness, I think there’s a bigger question to be had about what’s going on in the relationship with that child? What’s going on with that kid’s readiness to use technology in this way? So, those are the places I’d want parents to kind of wrestle with and I think about you and thinking about your son giving him a phone. You’re going to have to go into that with some presumption of him using it well.

 

REENA: Right.

 

LISA: And if you don’t have it, don’t give him the phone.

 

REENA: Right. And also it’s responsibility, which I’ve been milking to the core to say, you’re not even picking up your clothes on the floor, how can I trust you with the phone if you can’t do these basic things?

 

LISA: That’s awesome.

 

REENA: It has been great because he’s trying to prove that to me, but, let’s be honest, this is an age where they do stupid things. I mean, aren’t they wired in the brain to do stupid things? It feels that way as a parent. We’re struggling.

 

LISA: Well, they are wired to do stupid things and they are wired to be sensation-seeking and they are wired to make mistakes, as were we, Reena, and this is the really other interesting way to think about it. The stuff we did that our parents had no way to know we were doing, there was plenty of it, and that doesn’t mean that we say, oh, well, my folks had no idea what I was up to. I’m going to just turn a blind eye to what my teenager is up to, but the other problem with digital technology sometimes in family life, especially if parents are monitoring closely, you get a lot of data that you may not actually want to have about your teenager, and so again, as parents are weighing this question of, am I checking? Why am I checking? Am I going to be up front about the fact that I’m checking? I think there should be an open conversation with that young person of, here’s why I’m going to check. Here’s the conditions under which I will start to check less. Here are the conditions under which you will lose your phone. I mean like to really try to not just do it to do it, not just to collect data to collect data, but to go in with a rationale for why you’re doing it the way you’re doing it, if you can.

 

REENA: Do you think that this mom should reach out to the parent?

 

LISA: Well, that’s a great question. So, first she has to tell her kid that she saw it if she’s going to do that, right? Because it would already be deepening the weirdness if she doesn’t tell her kid that she saw it but does make a call to the other parent. So,I do think there is something to be said if this parent has this information and can one way or another say to her her daughter, look I saw this. Either I saw it because it was right next to me and had it pop up, or I need to let you know that I was looking through your phone. I understand if you’re upset with me about that, I should have been upfront about the fact I was going to do it. I’m going to do it going forward. I understand it might mean you might get sneakier. You know, this is about safety. I’m here to keep you safe, and in looking through your phone I saw this and I’m really proud of how you handled it. You know, I think that that would be important to say, and I’m worried about your friend, right? I think that I would start there if there’s ever going to be a question of a call to the other parent, you go through your kid.

 

REENA: Okay. So are you saying you should talk it out with your kid about whether or not you should approach the parent?

 

LISA: Yeah.

 

REENA: Because I’m just thinking if I’m the kid and you just found this on my phone and you’re ratting out my friend, this is probably not going to be my friend very long because she probably maybe didn’t want her parents to know about this either.

 

LISA: Right, I mean this is treacherous and tricky. No question. Okay, so the way, then, to consider this question. So, say we’ve gotten through the question of the parent happening to be looking at her kids phone, either having done so kind of accidentally and owning that, or having done so without being above board about the fact that she was going to do it and owning that and apologizing and trying to reset saying, going forward I’m going look periodically. I get it if it means I may not see as much, but there needs to be some repair around the fact that the parent was looking without being straightforward about it. So, now we have this issue of a 14-year-old doing risky stuff but not your own 14-year-old, this other kid. So, I think what the parent says to her own child is, you had the right reaction, you’re scared for your friend, what’s the story here? Like how worried should we be about her? And there will be information, right? I mean your daughter or that child might say, you know, she’s kind of out of control or she’s now downplaying it, she’s making it seem like it’s not a big deal, okay, so that’s one path. Your child might say, she is totally freaked out about the whole thing, she knows how lucky she is that nothing really bad happened, she is really going to keep things very quiet going forward. Okay, so that’s a different conversation, but if there is a worry about, like this feels dicey or it feels like it could stay dicey, or it was dicey, then the question about involving the other family is, what will it do to your relationship with your own child if you involve that family?

 

REENA: Oh, that’s a good one.

 

LISA: And at the end of the day, and this is not easy to say and it’s not without its complications, your job as a parent is to keep your kids safe, and if you feel like a quick call or an abrupt call over to the other family is going to shut down the lines of communication with your own kid, like you said, if your kid is going to horrified that you did this and it will be a massive rupture in your relationship, that is a problem because when kids don’t have good working open lines of communications with adults who love them, they are surprisingly less safe. They are much less safe.

 

REENA: Wow. I never looked at it that way. Wow, so in this situation, would you say, talk it through with your kid but don’t feel this obligation to reach out to the other parent because it could really damage your relationship with your kid, which is really important.

 

LISA: It is really important and your kid’s safety matters. So, I think you want to go very slowly, talk about go slow, right? Really talk it through with your kid, really get a sense of what the implications would be of sharing that information in terms of damage to your relationship and of course, as a parent, you’re like, oh my gosh, if this happened to my kid and another parent knew and didn’t tell me.

 

REENA: Right.

 

LISA: You’re like, I would be beside myself

 

REENA: Totally.

 

LISA: Okay, so if there is a sense of like, I don’t know, this feels like it is the start of something concerning or part of a concerning pattern and like, gosh that parent really needs to know, right? I mean if they’re starting to feel a sense of like a really powerful moral obligation, right? To say something, then, you have some options. So, then you can sit here kid, okay her parents need to know. Her parents need to know. Like this is not okay, she’s not safe. How do you want them to find out? And then you can give your kid options, and this is true, Reea, for all sorts of risky behavior between teens. I mean if a kid is talking about suicide, if a kid is getting into anything risky and we as adults know that about another person’s child and the feeling, okay it is not okay for that parent to stay in the dark about it, right? But we don’t want to damage our relationship with our own kid, then you can say, all right, here are ways that information can get to that other child’s family. So, this parent could say to this child, her own child, you need to go to your friend and you need to say to her, one option is you go to your friend and you say to her, your folks need to know and I need for you to tell them or I have to tell them. So, actually you give your kid the option of being the one who tells the friend’s parents herself, as opposed to doing the end-run.

 

REENA: That’s a lot of pressure to put on my kid.

 

LISA: It’s an option.

 

REENA: It’s an option, okay.

 

LISA: And so the other thing, of course, always the kids are worried about here is damaging their relationship with their friend.

 

REENA: Totally.

 

LISA: And so, Reena, I mean none of this is simple and none of this is straight forward, but certainly you could say, you could coach your own child to say look, you need to go back to your friend and say, look I feel like if I need to know what happened or, especially if there’s an ongoing pattern of behavior, especially if it’s not like a terrifying thing that she luckily came out of safe, but if this kid is like kind of minimizing it, or engaging in ongoing concerning behavior, you know, it gets easier for a friend to say, look, your folks need to know what you’re up to. This is not okay. You’re struggling, you’re not safe, you need support. The only people who can get you the support you need are your folks. You need to tell them what’s happening or I have to tell them what’s happening so you give that option.

 

REENA: That’s an option. I like that. And I also like what you said about when do you step in and how it can be so damaging on your relationship with your child. I never thought of that before, you know, I’m playing morality police on whether I tell the parent and the far greater crisis in my home could be that my kid a longer trusts me and then might not tell me about risky behavior or things that are upsetting them. So, wow.

 

LISA: It’s a real problem. These are really complicated things. The other option is to say to your kid, do you want me to call? And sometimes kids will be like, yes please.

 

REENA: Because it takes the burden off of them and you know deal with, and it’s just too much for me. That makes sense. That makes sense.

 

LISA: And you say like, somehow these parents need to find out, either your friend can tell them, you can tell them, or I can tell them. Which of these feels most bearable to you?

 

REENA: That’s good. That’s really good.

 

LISA: And that is fair. And kids get that. I mean it’s interesting, I’ve had conversations with kids where they’re like, do they really need to know? And I was like, can you imagine being a parent who did this? And they’ll be like, that is true. So it’s really, I mean this letter, we can spool it out in so many ways around how to supervise kids while maintaining trust, how to have information without rupturing trust.

 

REENA: Yeah. yeah.

 

LISA: It’s tricky.

 

REENA: This is really good. I’m just curious,what do you think this mom does going forward because, you know, this child responded in such a cool, awesome way, who should be given kudos for, and it’s almost like the child’s penalized for doing well because the mom’s going to be checking texts and wondering what’s going on and checking up. What do you think? Where does she go from here at this point? Should she keep checking? What’s the approach?

 

LISA: That’s such a good question. I think I can have two answers to that. One answer is, I think the mom could say almost exactly what you just said to her daughter, right? And I think that that’s sort of how you start to enter these things. So, she could say, I mean I love your language, she could say something like, now I feel really torn because I do want to be above board about checking in, especially since I saw this kind of upsetting thing, I definitely feel more inclined to check, and yet I’m really aware that that may feel terrible for you, especially given how beautifully you handled this, especially given that your reaction was so appropriate. What should we do? What should we do, and to really, if that child can do it, to really have a roll up your sleeves conversation of, do I need to be monitoring your phone? Why am I monitoring your phone? Does it help you be safe if I monitor your phone? Does that undermine your safety? Are you going to get sneaky on me and we need to deal with the lack of trust in our relationship? I mean I think if the parent can really put themselves forward as trying to sort this out with the child, that safety is something we do with our kids, not to our kids, I think that it could be a conversation, not a decision.

 

REENA: Wow, I love that. Say that again, that was really good. Safety?

 

LISA: It’s something we do with our kids, not to our kids.

 

REENA: I love that. Wow, that’s really good. Wow, do you think we could just start a movement where we go back to flip phones for everybody? Adults and kids.

 

LISA: I know. The other thing is, we may not know if this is the start of a pattern, right? The parent may confront the daughter and say, oh my lord, your friend did this thing that you have the right reaction to, like do we need to call her parents? And it’s a very good chance, probably most likely, that the 14-year-old goes, I don’t know. She might have had like this one totally out of control night and now she’s going to be a straight arrow from here on out, which happens. Or, she might be back in trouble soon and so it’s really hard to know if it’s premature to call those other parents, and I think in that situation the parent who saw the text might try to be patient. I might say, look, I want you to be safe, I want your friends to be safe, can you keep me posted? I’m here to help. And let it unfold a little.

 

REENA: Okay, but would you still go back and check text messages even after giving that message to her?

 

LISA: I wouldn’t do it surreptitiously.

 

REENA: Okay.

 

LISA: And I would try to do it as a part of a conversation about what maintains safety, what preserves safety, and part of what preserve safety is trust, and so I think this parent and his daughter are into a deep conversation about how can the parent be sure they can trust the child and how can the child feel that they can trust the parent.

 

REENA: There’s so much to think about.

 

LISA: And one way to think about it, Reena, you know there’s the possibility of the full body CT scan for medical health, and you know doctors are like, you don’t want that.  Because you will find, you know, this quirky little spot on your liver that you never needed to know about and you’ll have like 400 diagnostic tests and all of these things and will rule it out. Sometimes I feel that way about parents monitoring their kids’ digital technology because there’s a lot of information that you’re like, did you really want that information? And does it set you down a path of all sorts of diagnostic invasive things that have their own downsides, and I think a lot of times physicians are like, if there’s a problem, we’ll know.

 

REENA: Right. Right.

 

LISA: And that’s another spot parents could sit in on this, which is I may periodically monitor, I’m going to tell them I will, I’m not going try to do full body CT scan on their phones, and I am going to trust if something’s really wrong, I know my kid well enough that I will somehow know.

 

REENA: Yeah. Oh, that’s good. The CT scan on your cell phone. What do you have for us for parenting to go?

 

LISA: Back to this idea of trust and us trusting our kids and our kids trusting us, I think if parents find themselves in a position where they are checking their kids’ phone without telling their kid and doing it a lot, I would want that parent to think about where they are entrusting their child and if there’s more that could be done to raise their overall level of trust in their child or to figure out why they don’t trust their child, and to try to tackle that problem, or move that problem in the right direction, as opposed to relying on surreptitious checking as the solution or the guarantee of the child’s safety because it’s not, it’s a tricky solution and building and maintaining trust back and forth with the child is almost always going to be the safer option.

 

REENA: I never thought about that. That trust issue is something parents should think about. It’s great.

 

LISA: Not easy but important.

 

REENA: Not easy. Speaking of trust, we’ve got an episode next week. We’re going to talk about my son messed up, so how do I keep him from being canceled? Wow. That’s a good one. I’ll see you next week?

 

LISA: I’ll see you next week.

 

 

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

My new book is now available!

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents