When is it OK to search a teen’s room?

When is it OK to search a teen’s room?

“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.

*”Your rights as the parent of a teen with a mental disorder.”

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.


Good luck.

6 Replies to “When is it OK to search a teen’s room?”

  1. I have a 28 year old who has moved back home with her daughter. We had noticed she was drinking allot and confronted her about it and she agreed to go to AA. After going to a few meetings she declared she was not an Alcoholic any more. I gave her space and she began drinking again so again I confronted her and she lies to my face saying she does not. I have checked her room while she was out and found multiple bottles so I know she is lying to me. How do I confront her about checking her room and finding the evidence?

    1. Let’s look at the lying first. This is what all struggling addicts do to avoid facing the reality of their addiction. In a way, it’s an acknowledgment that their addiction has complete control over them. It might ease any distress if you accept this as another stone on the long rocky path she has to take toward recovery, and not a character flaw. Beating back alcoholism is a dreadful awful horrible experience for the addict. Just ask one.

      Try a different technique when you present your discovery to her. Start out by simply acknowledging that you know she’s still struggling with alcoholism and that you want to know how you can help. She may deny it and get angry, which is a typical response for an addict and not worth responding to. Instead, repeat that you know, and that you want to help because you know that her path is hard. Also point out that she did the right thing by going to AA the first time. Help her feel good about taking that huge first step (to a real alcoholic, it is indeed a massive step). And once again offer to help her go back.

      You might not need to bring up that you searched her room at all. I don’t know the full story, but I suspect she’s going feel threatened or upset whether she knows you searched the room or not. If you start by validating her fear first (fear of the painful path to recovery), and repeat an offer to help, you will influence her back to AA.

      Last, she challenges you on searching her room, you can counter that it was not something you would ever have done if you thought she was OK. State that you believe it was the right thing to do under the circumstances. And once again ask how you can support her getting back to AA and sticking with it. It takes steady, patient repetition to work.

      I wish you the very best. Have hope, the age of 30 is when a majority of addicts start facing their addiction and making a commitment to recovery. Steady support from others like yourself matters so much!

  2. I searched my teens room. Because she was acting funny. Found several pipes, bongs, weed, oh, and psilocybin mushrooms. What a bad parent I must be.

    1. Anthony, you are anything but a bad parent.

      So many parents have had the shock of similar discoveries about their child, and it’s always a punch in the stomach. But you did it; you searched her room, which means you’re a good parent. You followed a hunch and searched for more information about what to do about your daughter’s behavior because you care, which also means you’re a good parent. What you found were dangerous substances that can cause brain damage in the adolescent brain, and lead to addiction and criminal charges. And as a good parent you want to protect your daughter from these things.

      To other parents out there:

      There’s no harm in double checking on teens, to “trust but verify.” A wonderful child can make terrible decisions that can tank their future. I raised 2 daughters, one was seriously mentally ill and her sister was normal, healthy, grounded, and intelligent. But this wonderful sister was the one hiding pipes and marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms. It was utterly devastating when I discovered it. It was like she was choosing “self-induced” mental illness.

      In my case, I called the juvenile justice department first to find out the consequences if I reported her possession of illicit drugs, with her stated intent to sell at school! A Class C felony! They said she’d be charged, released to my custody, required to do community service and take drug prevention classes, and her charge could be expunged at 18 if there were no other charges. These were very acceptable consequences. In her adulthood, she thanked me for following through.


  3. Thanks for your comment.

    Read my article titled “The difference between a normal ‘crazy’ teen and one who’s disturbed” to get a better idea of the kinds of teens I’m referring to in this blog. Some are truly dangerous to themselves or others, who’s stories I know about personally through my work. They hide weapons, alcohol or meth (addictions), or stolen goods… Or they repeatedly take extreme risks, like connecting with others over the internet and becoming victimized (raped), or caught up in destructive acts (racist vandalism, arson), sexual assaults, or dangerous materials for hurting themselves. This blog is about them. If a teen like this lived next door to you, and their parents ignored the evidence in their own home and did nothing, would this be “better parenting?”

    Some teens push parents into making decisions they would never ordinarily make. I believe a room search of a troubled teen can be better parenting. Yes, the risk of losing a teen’s trust is there, but the risk of loss to life, property, health, and a decent future is also there for troubled teens. It’s an extremely tough decision, but some parents are forced to decide which is worse.

  4. That’s messed up.
    What if the child just has simple things that are embarrassing? (i.e. Pornography, condoms, or lubricant)
    Are these things dangerous? I’m sure you would lose your child’s trust with you snooping for these things.
    I honestly believe that children these days are overly prescribed with psychiatric drugs when they simply are different, need better parenting, or for god’s sake need to stop being treated as if they are crazy all the god damn time.

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