So your kids have reached their teen years and there is no longer a need for babysitters. You are thinking that you can finally go out on a worry-free date with your spouse. There is no babysitter to drive home and you can actually linger over coffee.
Think again! Are you really relaxing with your teen home alone? Teens are unpredictable and don’t always think things through. With teens the issue is not “can” they be home alone, but “should” they be home alone. This depends on your teen’s level of maturity and history with following rules and making good choices.
What is an appropriate length of time to leave a teen home alone — and does this depend on age?
“It depends on their maturity level and their previous track record more so than their age,” says Dr. Steve L. Pastyrnak, division chief of Pediatric Psychology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, MI. “A teen who has a history of not listening and making impulsive decisions may not do well with being home alone for more than an hour or two, if they can handle that time alone at all. The best way to predict future behavior is by considering past behavior.”
For concerned parents who are not sure how their teen will handle alone time, it’s good to start slowly.
“Sometimes teens can benefit from several dry runs, in which parents leave them home alone for short periods until trust is developed,” suggests Pastyrnak.
Be sure you’ve gone over all rules associated with this responsibility. Don’t assume she knows what is expected of her. Be honest with your teen about why your rules are important.
“When home alone, it’s important for teens to learn to be safe, to learn to be independent and to take advantage of the opportunity to build their parent’s trust,” says Pastyrnak. “It’s also important for teens to continue to follow household rules. These might include computer use, telephone access, and having friends over past a certain time.”
Should teens be able to have a friend of the opposite sex over?
“This depends on the values of both sets of parents, as well as the previous history of the teens,” Pastyrnak advises. “If you feel that the teens can handle this time without supervision, it is still important to discuss your expectations of them and to clear this with the other parents in order to avoid any potential hard feelings.”
Don’t forget to check in.
“With today’s technology, teens can check in with their parents with a quick text or phone call,” Pastyrnak says.
If your teenager has consistently demonstrated mature decision making, trust that she will make the right choices if left alone. Pastyrnak believes parents should assume that their kids are innocent until proven guilty.
“Part of growing up is learning how to be independent and to take care of oneself,” he says.
However, teens should also be aware that there will be strict consequences if they break the rules, such as losing driving privileges or restrictions on cellphone use.
For parents seeking extra insurance, especially with younger teens, consider asking a close friend or neighbor to check in if you plan to be away for several hours. However, resorting to setting up hidden cameras might be going overboard. Pastyrnak agrees.
“Although teens may have a tendency to test limits and rebel, they need opportunities to prove themselves and to learn important life skills,” he says. “If they were to find out about a hidden camera, it might damage their trust of their parents.”
The road to independence has its benefits.
“The more teens develop a sense of healthy independence, the more likely they will take ownership of their decisions,” Pastyrnak says.
Tips and tales
“I checked in frequently and continue to do so. Try to raise a ‘trustworthy’ kid. That’s half the battle.”
Lee Ann Fatizzi, Ulster Park, NY
“I wouldn’t leave a teen alone if he doesn’t behave well in school or the choice of friends is questionable.”
Lillian Pichardo, Hyde Park, NY
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Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer and columnist specializing in parenting issues and children’s development. Her work appears in publications across the United States and Canada. She is the mother of two teenagers.