As kids get older, keeping them safe can get complicated. While separating from parents can be healthy, teens are notorious for bad, sometimes dangerous decisions. Parents face a troubling dilemma: Do the dangers of teen drug abuse override the right to privacy?
Parents typically do one of two things in the face of possible teen drinking or drug use. "Some parents overreact, but a large number of parents don’t do anything," says Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of The Partnership at Drugfree.org. "They hope it’s a phase. They hope it goes away."
Even though they can’t control everything, parents do play an important role in their teen’s decisions. Kids who learn a lot about the risks from their parents are up to 50% less likely to use drugs. Despite this, only 31% of kids say their parents have taught them about the risks of drugs.
Before you pull a search warrant, keep in mind that going through your teen’s stuff carries its own risks. "If a parent violates a teen’s privacy, the kid is more likely to be stuck in a state of defiance," says Susan Swick, MD, MPH, director of the Parenting At a Challenging Time (PACT) program at the Vernon Cancer Center, Newton Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts. "Ideally, children should feel like parents are on their side," Swick tells WebMD. As many parents know, this is not always easy.
In this article, WebMD turns to several experts to help parents navigate the fine line between teens’ right to privacy and parental protection.
Before Invading a Teen’s Right to Privacy
"If a parent is concerned about their child’s behavior, there probably is something going on," says Swick, who is also an attending psychiatrist in the division of child psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. "But it may not be what they think." Something other than alcohol or drugs could be fueling your child’s behavior. It could be your child is depressed, struggling at school, or thinking about coming out of the closet. No matter what’s going on, it’s good to find out directly from your child -- if possible.
"Parents should talk to their child before resorting to detective work," Swick tells WebMD. No matter what is going on, talking will be a big part of helping your child through it. If you do find something that confirms your worst fears, you will be in a better position if you can say, ‘we talked about this, and I was still seeing things that concerned me. As your parent, I am not going to ignore signs that you might be in danger.’"
The most effective communication is as common as getting ready for school. "The scary ‘Drug Talk’ never goes well," says Pasierb. Rather than a talk both of you are going to dread, he recommends an ongoing dialogue that lets your child know where you stand on drug use. "Open communication is about things parents say every day, on the way to soccer practice or while watching TV," Pasierb tells WebMD.