“My son is always in his room and gets extremely upset if I go in in there or even open the door. He says he has a right to privacy, but I suspect something bad is going on, and want to search the 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
Can I search my child’s room? Legally, the answer is “Yes.” I’ve gotten asked this question many times.
Rights for searching a child’s room.
- Parents have the right to control or protect every square inch of their household or vehicle or other property.
- Parents have the right to search a troubled child’s room, or read any communications or materials if they have reason to believe there’s a safety risk. It is critical they consider any loss of trust or negative ramifications.
- Parents have the right to take anything that is dangerous or is against their rules: drugs and drug paraphernalia, weapons or something that can be used as a weapon, pornography, violent extremist materials, stolen or illegal goods, stolen property the child is hiding for others, unusual amounts of cash, or anything else that may lead to negative consequences.
- Parents have the right to lock up anything or refuse to return anything or pay for anything that may post a safety risk (mobile service, inappropriate clothing, etc.).
- Parents also have the right to add locks on doors, remove locks on doors, and add security technology to their home to monitor behavior. There should be no expectation of privacy except in certain spaces such as a bathroom.
- Parents have the authority to create house rules, the freedom to revise as needed, and the right to use enforcement (or enticement) as is appropriate and effective.
If there is any concern that something dangerous or disallowed
is being hidden from you: search your child’s room.
If your child gets very upset about invasion of their privacy, especially if they make accusations that you have no right to search their room, they might be hiding something from you because you’ll disapprove. You’ve tried talking with your child and met with anger, accusations, excuses, or threats.
“He was so mad at me when I found a bong in his room and took it.”
–Mother of 18 year old son who lived at home
Son: “You stole my property!”
Parent: “It’s my house and you know the rules.”
Son: “But it’s mine! I paid for it! It was really expensive! I’m reporting you to the police!”
What can prompt a decision to search your child’s room
- Your child’s behavior has been changing recently, or they have become more secretive, irritable, or defiant than usual
- He or she has abandoned old friends for new ones that concern you, or is losing friends or appears to have none
- His or her grades have fallen even though they were formerly a good student
- You sense that he or she is depressed or overly anxious or paranoid. Your child is growing more defiant or irritable or withdrawn.
- Your child pressures you for money, or steals it from you, or finds other ways to get money. They seem to have more money than they should, and you don’t know the source.
You have ample legal rights*, but use them wisely and cautiously.*
If you are concerned about your child for any reason, before you search their room and things, weigh the potential consequences. It may result in a complete loss of trust in you and cleverer (or more desperate) ways to keep you out of their life. It may also put you in a position to apologize if you find nothing; trust is still lost; or you find something and need to act on the discovery. Do you have a good plan for this?
- Get the facts first, if able;
- Consider whether or not you tell your child, before or after;
- Take nothing unless it is very concerning;
- Leave no trace.
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 or knives; 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); pornography; blood on clothes from cutting; extreme literature or drawings or writings. 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–this is not stealing when you are reasonably protecting a child. No officer, no judge, no social worker would presume you are guilty first. You would probably be praised instead.
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 from a troubled teenager is really important.
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 are more important than lazy, messy behavior. Find other ways to address these.
You may need to choose between safety and respect.
If you find something dangerous, act on it immediately. Do not defend your decision or offer explanations and rationale. It’s better to have uncovered a secret and sought help. Now that the tables have been turned on your child, their trust of you is less important than your trust of them.
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