Dear Virginia,

I went into my 14-year-old daughter’s room the other day to tidy up and found a box of cigarettes. Not only that, but her diary seemed to imply that she goes out to parties and has a kind of “snogging chart” where she gives boys points for how good they are at kissing and so on. I feel |I must have this out with her, but obviously I don’t want her to know I’ve been snooping. I’m so worried. What can I do?

Yours sincerely, Cynthia

Next time you feel like going into your daughter's room and having a poke around, guide your steps, instead, to the attic and look in an old trunk for any of your own old diaries. Taking into account the fact that girls mature earlier these days, open a diary you wrote at 15 and have a snoop in that, instead of your daughter's. You may be shocked. I bet you were smoking, although perhaps you didn't know quite how dangerous it was then. I bet you were kissing boys – though you might not have been keeping a snogging chart.

And has that harmed you or made you any less of a person in later life? Of course not. For heaven's sake, smoking and snogging are what girls do! What did you expect to find? A health and hygiene chart? A list of 10 glorious qualities headed "Why my mum is the best mum in the world"? A "Things To Do" chart starting with "1. Go to library and read Bible. 2. Do my bit for the environment..."?

A teenager's diary is inevitably filled not only with a snogging chart but usually much, much worse, including all kinds of bile about her parents, and hideous anxieties and fears generally. You're lucky those small bits of misbehaviour, if you can call them that, were all you found. To me, your daughter sounds a saint.

Rather more, I have to say, than you. If you are old enough to have a daughter of 14, you are old enough to know that you never find anything in a diary except trouble. Want to do yourself a bit of damage? Get a close friend's or lover's diary and read that. You're bound to feel distressed by it. How do I know? Because I have, in the past, done it myself, and I have never been anything but bitterly hurt as a result. Anyway, diaries are private and should remain so. If you were to reveal to your daughter that you'd read hers, she would never be able to trust you again.

Now if, when you pass her closed door of a night, you are overcome by the smell of cigarette smoke, you are perfectly entitled to knock on the door and then barge in and say: "Smoking? Not in my house, please!" But that's about it. You can't prevent her smoking outside. And notice that I say "knock on the door". She is at an age when you must tell her that you will always knock before going into her room. Who knows what she might be up to? She might be looking at dodgy websites. Or having a very private cry. It would be horrible for both of you if she were interrupted.

Cynthia, you are about to enter one of the most difficult stages of parenting. Your daughter is part child, part adult and sometimes you have to switch parenting styles from one second to the next. And probably you have to learn one of the most difficult lessons of all – which is to know when you should just sit on your hands, shut your eyes, put earplugs in, and say and do nothing at all.

Readers say...

She's experimenting

Welcome to the underworld that is adolescence! (Cue echoing Vincent Price laughter.) This is your daughter's decade of experimenting, and snogging and fags are all part of this. I'd be more concerned if you'd found contraceptive pills or condoms. It is good that you are sensitive about her privacy, although you really should not have read her diary.

You can speak to her without letting on about what you found in her room (and she may even have left them around for you to find). Have a general chat about cigarettes, alcohol, respect for others and for herself in the company of boys. And set firm rules about going out; 14 is too young for her to go to parties without your consent. Above all, let her know you are there for her to talk any time.

Christina Burton (veteran and survivor of five teenagers)

St Leonards, East Sussex

Bribery works

You shouldn't have read your daughter's diary, and you certainly can't reveal that you did. Anyway, don't you expect that she may be snogging one or two boys, at 14? She's not sleeping with them, she's snogging them, and she's so cool about it that she can keep a chart. I'd say that's healthy.

You found the cigarettes on a legitimate tidy-up, so you can discuss them with her. Talk about health issues, which will probably bore her, and the reasons why teenagers smoke, such as wanting to look cool, copying other kids etc. You might try what my father tried. The first time he knew I'd smoked a cigarette he promised me £1,000 if I didn't smoke another before my 21st birthday, and he did the same for my brother and sister. It was one of the best investments he ever made. None of us smokes. Bribery works!


Wakefield, by email

You've betrayed her

Reading your daughter's diary is a gross betrayal. Speaking as someone whose mother once did the same thing, it is very hard to rebuild trust and respect. And where has it got you? You are now doing battle with yourself. You can't discuss what you have learnt as she will know you have sought out and read her diary, but at the same time it has caused you distress and anguish.

The content of her diary does seem fairly harmless. It's totally natural for teenagers to "snog" each other, as often as possible. By the sound of it, she isn't having sex. I'm sure you didn't read anything that doesn't feature in every teenage girl's diary. As for the cigarettes, were they hidden or in plain view? Perhaps you can address the smoking issue with her – you have every right to be concerned. But I would strongly advise you not to mention what you have found in her diary.



Curb your snooping

It's you who's been a "naughty girl". You snooped, found something out, and regret having snooped at all. My advice? Accept that 14-year-old girls do "snog" boys and might smoke a cigarette – and perhaps seek counselling for your snooping tendencies.

John Moore


Frighten her

Goodness me! As a teenager, I was most struck by your decision to read your daughter's diary. If my mother ever invaded my privacy in such a manner, I'd be devastated. As for the cigarettes, you can talk about that. Frighten her with the risks and tell she's breaking the law. Tell her that when she's 18 and has left home, she may smoke if she wants, but while she's living with you, you don't want to watch her endanger her life.


Wiltshire, by email