“My son is always in his room and gets extremely upset if I go in there. He says he has a right to privacy, but I suspect something bad is going on, and want to search his room when he’s not there. Would I be violating his rights? It is OK to search his room?
–Mother of 15-year-old boy
I’ve gotten asked this question many times. The answer is “Yes” in the following circumstances:
- Your child’s behavior has been changing recently, or they have become more secretive, irritable, or defiant than usual
- He or she has left old friends for new ones whom you are concerned about, or has fewer and fewer friends
- His or her grades have fallen recently even though they were formerly a good student
- You sense that he or she is depressed or overly anxious or paranoid
- Your child pressures you for money, or steals it from you, or finds ways to get money
- You’ve tried talking with your child about general things in life, school, or feelings, and were met with anger or excuses or deflection.
If there is any concern that something that can be dangerous is being hidden from you: search your child’s room.
When a young person gets very upset about invading their privacy, they likely are hiding something from you because they know you’ll disapprove. What could it be? Drug or alcohol use? An inappropriate relationship? Porn? Cutting or self harm? Severe depression? The onset of paranoid psychosis?
You have ample legal rights as a parent, but use them wisely and cautiously.*
If something is going wrong with your child and they need your help, you must do a balancing act: 1) get the facts; 2) maintain their trust and keep open lines of communication. Some of the dangerous activities above are common for ‘normal’ difficult teenagers, who can grow out of it or be rehabilitated with treatment and ample family support. Some of these are emergent mental illnesses that need treatment immediately. Why immediately? The sooner the child gets treatment at early onset, the less likely their disorder will develop into serious symptoms as an adult. Mental illnesses are degenerative to the brain, but you can stop it from going further if you start treatment early.
You can search through all their items for things that are or may lead to unsafe behavior. Things you might look for are razor blades, illicit drugs or drug paraphernalia, over-the-counter drugs or drugs that can’t be purchased under the age of 21 (e.g. Benadryl), pseudo-drugs like bags of incense powder, weapons (knives, guns), porn, sexual items, blood on clothes from cutting, etc. You can read your child’s email and texts to search for dangerous activities, plans, or people who may be negatively influencing your teen. You can remove any dangerous or inappropriate item and not return it–it is not stealing. No officer, no judge, no social worker would ever find you guilty. You would be praised instead.
Parent: “He was so mad at me when I found a bong in his room and took it.”
Son: “You’re stealing from me!”
Parent: “It’s my house and it’s not supposed to be here.”
Son: “But it’s mine! I paid for it! It was really expensive! I’m reporting you for stealing!”
Also search other potential hiding places in your house or any other storage areas. If you find nothing unusual or dangerous on a search, great! You’ve at least satisfied your rightful need to know. Now, when you speak with your child about problems, you can set some fears aside and listen to him or her without bias.
Trust with a teenager is everything.
If your child finds out you’ve searched their room, yes, you will lose their trust, and he or she may go to greater lengths to keep secrets. So don’t tell them. And don’t bring up anything else you discovered if it’s not directly related to safety! What if you find stacks of incomplete homework? Forget it. Did you find food scraps in the bed? Forget it. A moldy sandwich in the closet? Don’t say anything that reveals you searched their room. As a responsible parent, safety and mental health trump lazy, messy behavior. Find other ways to address these.
In dire circumstances, a parent may need put some values aside.
What if you find something dangerous? Act on it immediately. Your child will feel violated and you’ll lose his or her trust, but it’s temporary. Do not defend your decision or try to rationalize it. It’s better to have uncovered a secret and opened the way for getting help. Now the tables have been turned on your child. Under serious circumstances, their trust of you is less important than your trust of them.