Staring through blurry eyes, you try making out the numbers on the clock. 2:57. Still in a groggy state of confusion, you wonder why you woke in the middle of the night. You let out an annoyed sigh and flip onto your other side to get comfortable. Maybe you can get back to sleep quickly.
Then you see the silhouette standing in your bedroom door. A shot of adrenaline surges through your body, feeling as if a thousand electric needles are pricking your skin. You try to scream but your voice catches in your throat. Your lungs feel paralyzed as your mind races, trying to figure out why this intruder is standing in your house.
Having the sanctity and security of your home breached by an unwelcome intruder is a feeling you don’t soon forget. Many years ago, my family had just moved into a new house. I woke to my parents peeking in my bedroom door and telling me stay quiet, they heard someone coming into the house. That was over 30 years ago, and I still remember that disconcerting feeling to this day.
Our homes are our fortress. Our safe zone. We like to believe a break in will never happen to us. But unfortunately, it happens far too often. No two situations are the same, so there is never one simple answer. There are, however, guidelines you can follow.
But before we get to what you should do if an intruder is in your house, let’s rewind just a bit.
Break-in prevention: How to keep an intruder out of your house
Like everything else in self defense, the best defense is to avoid the situation altogether. And also like everything else, no matter how prepared and preventive you are, you can’t control everything. Break ins are no different.
However, the more you prepare, the less likely you are to be victimized, and the more likely you’ll respond with appropriate action instead of freezing.
Break in prevention generally covers layers 5, 6, and 7 of personal safety. Those are habits, lifestyle, and permanent defenses, respectively. If you aren’t familiar with those terms, you can check out our article on the 7 layers of personal safety.
What’s the first thing you think of when you hear burglar prevention? For many, it’s security systems. And that’s not an incorrect answer. Security systems and cameras can be great deterrents. But there are other ways to make your house a hard target.
For instance, planting thorny bushes underneath windows, or simply getting in the habit of double checking door and window locks before leaving the house or going to bed.
Many people count on dogs to deter intruders. While that may work, it doesn’t always. A well socialized dog may not alert to a stranger. There are many instances of dogs greeting an intruder. In fact, a student recently woke to an intruder in the house, and realized later the man walked right by his apparently sleeping dogs.
Break-in preparation: Home invasion drills
In a moment we’ll get into what exactly you should do if an intruder is in your house. But knowing that information is worthless if you don’t practice it.
Remember those fire drills you used to do in school? At the time, you likely thought their best purpose was breaking up the monotony of class, especially when it happened in the middle of a test.
But just like those drills ensured faculty could get students out of a building safely, so too does a home invasion drill ensure you can keep your family safe during a break in.
After finishing this article, you’ll have a better idea of what your family plan should entail. It’s important you establish a plan and make sure everyone in the house knows it. Practice it. Your plan should include adult division of responsibilities (such as what do about or with the kids), safe rooms, escape routes, and meetup locations.
Having said all that, let’s take a look at what to do when an intruder is in your house. Now we’re getting to the complicated stuff. Why? Because everyone’s family is different, and each house is different. Generally speaking, however, we’ll divide the scenarios into two parts: a burglar in your house but not in your room, and then the intruder actually in your room.
What to do when a burglar is in your house, but not in your room.
Most people’s instinct says if you hear someone in your house, confront them immediately. And in certain situations, that may be the correct instinct. In fact, research suggests that 75% of burglars would abandon the house if they saw or heard people moving.
A trapped burglar can become violent and dangerous if he fears getting caught. What began as you chasing someone out of your house could turn into a life or death struggle.
If you hear someone in your house, stay quiet. Now isn’t the time to attract attention to yourself because you don’t know for sure what they want. Lock your door and listen. Can you tell how many there are? Do you hear them talking about weapons or discussing their intentions? Call 911 and give them as much information as possible. The sooner you call, the sooner police will get there.
Make sure you tell the dispatcher:
- Who you are.
- Where you live.
- What is happening.
- How many people you think are in your house who shouldn’t be there.
- How many people are home who should be there.
- Where you will be in the home, or out if you have an escape route.
What should you do about kids while an intruder is in the house?
What about your kids? If you have a large enough house that you can move without being seen, bring older kids into the safe room with you. Younger children may be brought in. For very young kids, it may be best to simply lock their door and let them sleep.
Should you come face to face with the intruder while getting the kids, stay as calm as you can and keep your hands visible. Remember TACOS, don’t make eye contact, and speak softly.
If the intruder asked where your valuables are, whatever you do, do not lie. If he comes back angry because you lied, you’ve just escalated the situation. Having said that, you can be tactical in telling him the truth. Is there somewhere you can send him in the house that allows you time to get out safely?
One last thing. Do not put any ideas of leverage into the intruder’s mind, such as saying “please don’t hurt my kids/wife.” Voicing such a concern gives him a weakness to exploit that he may not have even considered until you said it.
What to do once you’re in the safe room
Once you have all of your family in the safe room, do not leave until the police arrive, even if you think the intruder is gone. For one, you may be wrong and end up in an unnecessary confrontation. Second, you don’t want to be mistaken for the criminal when the police show up (remember, you told the dispatcher where you would be in the house).
Of course, if you believe yourself and family to be in imminent danger, leaving the safe room and escaping may be your best choice.
Should you get a weapon?
While in the safe room, should you have a weapon? I don’t believe there is a single correct answer, only a correct answer for you. There are pros and cons to both choices.
As an example, if you don’t have a weapon and the intruder makes his way into the safe room, can you defend yourself effectively? At the same time, if you do have a weapon and he comes in the room, would your weapon incite him to use his?
If you do have a weapon, keep it close. Ideally, you will have trained with that weapon under stress, and also know how to defend against it (weapons are often taken away and used against their owner). If your weapon is a gun, establish a fatal funnel by placing yourself in a corner away from the door, allowing you to see the intruder before he sees you.
What if you don’t have a weapon, but feel in the moment you need one? Remember, any room in your house is full of weapons if you have knowledge of improvised weapons.
What to do if you wake up to an intruder in your room.
Upon waking to find an intruder already in your room, the previous section goes out the window. Again, there is no right answer because every situation is different. There are, however, options. These options go back to planning and practice before a home invasion ever happens.
If someone has put a hand on you while you slept, you have the right to fight back with any amount of force necessary. The question becomes, should you? If you just woke up and start fighting without taking stock of the situation, you may not realize he has a weapon or a partner in the room.
Again, I’m not saying don’t fight- just know when the time is right.
If you must fight, do you have a weapon handy, even if it’s a lamp? What about family in other parts of the house? Should you alert them, and how? Do they know what to do? These are all considerations for discussion in your family plan.
What if you wake up and find someone in your room, but they’re preoccupied with taking your things? As mentioned earlier, confronting them may cause them to flee. At the same time, you may startle them into using a weapon or becoming otherwise violent.
The better course of action could be staying quiet and observing them. Can you pretend to be asleep while looking for identifying features you could tell the police? If you decide this is your best option, stay still and quiet until you know they are gone, then call 911.
Since you don’t know for certain if he’s left for good or coming back, now may be the time to revert to the prior section on dealing with an intruder in your house but not in your room.
What to do after an intruder leaves your home.
Call 911 immediately, if you haven’t already. Then, get to a safe place and wait for police to clear the scene. If you have a safe escape route and you know 100% the intruder is gone, leave the house and let the 911 dispatcher know where you are going.
If you don’t feel you can safely leave the house, lock yourself in the safe room and wait for police.
Once the police confirm it’s safe, cooperate with them fully. Make a list of any items missing if you were robbed. If the thief took electronics like computers or phones, change all of your account passwords, especially for bank accounts, and cancel your credit cards.
If your electronics have remote tracking capabilities like the Mac “Find Me” feature, let police know.
A disconcerting fact is that intruders often come back to the same house again. They may have seen something they want but didn’t have time to grab. A smart burglar also realizes you will replace what he took before, often with bigger and newer (thus more valuable) items. Plus, they already know the entry and exit points.
While you can’t change what has already happened, now is the time to look toward the future and assess how you can prevent future break-ins.
How do you survive a home break-in while you’re in the house? There is never a single, simple answer because everyone’s situation is different. However, there are proper ways to plan for such an unwanted event. With proper, prior planning, you ensure your home is a harder target, and if someone does come in that you are prepared to take the appropriate actions for your family’s safety.
Your plan begins with a look at your 7 layers of personal safety- especially the last three layers of habits, lifestyle, and permanent defenses. What better way to find weak points than haring it from criminals themselves? KTVB7 in Boise, Idaho interviewed 86 burglars about how they broke into homes. You can read that article here.
Remember, just like you would create a family plan for a house fire, create and practice a family plan for a home invasion.
Keep in mind there are two basic scenarios you should plan for. First, and intruder in your home but not in your room. Second is waking to find an intruder already in your room.
Nobody ever sets out to have their home invaded, but with a little thought and family discussion, you can put a plan in place that gives you and your family the best chance of surviving a home break in.