“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.
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.
“He was so mad at me when I found a bong in his room and took it.”
He said,”you’re stealing from me!”
“It’s my house and it’s not supposed to be here.”
“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.
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.