This is a paraphrase of a question that was posed a few years ago in a support group I facilitated. It’s a question I had to face more than once. Now that years have gone by, I still believe this is a good approach when you have a troubled teenager, but some parents may struggle with the issue of trust.
Q: 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. Yet it bothers me that I’d be violating his trust. Is it OK to search his room?
A: I advocate searching a troubled child’s room or reading “private” information like email if there is any concern whatsoever that something potentially dangerous is being hidden from a parent. Since he gets very upset, he may not want you to find something because he knows you’ll disapprove. Practically speaking, is there a way you can search his room or read email without him (or anyone else) ever finding out?
If he finds out you’ve searched his room, yes, you will lose his trust, and he may go to greater lengths to keep secrets. But as the responsible adult in the household, you must think not only about your son, yourself, and your family, but about others who may be at risk if your son has really dangerous plans. The need for safety should include those in contact with your son. Who else is at risk of violence? criminal changes? substance abuse?
If you find nothing unusual or dangerous on a search, you’ve at least satisfied your rightful need to know. The first issue is his need for privacy and his fear of losing it. The second issue is your need for mutual trust. He will need you someday when he’s in trouble, and his trust is critical. It’s OK not to tell him if you’ve searched his room.
In dire circumstances, a parent may need put some values aside.
If you find something dangerous, act on it immediately and do not defend your decision or try to talk him into taking responsibility for his actions. A troubled teen can’t or won’t. He will either be remorseful and embarrassed, or enraged and threatening. Regardless, take dangerous materials or actions very seriously because someone’s life could literally be at risk. Since it’s clear that trust is important to you (as it should be), expect that it may be very long time before your son trusts you if he finds out. But also remember that, under these serious circumstances, his trust of you may be less important than your trust of him.