Home Alone: When Teens are Home Alone
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. Even for those who don't have bad intentions, things can go awry. I'll never forget the time my neighbor invited a couple of friends over when her parents were away. Before she knew it, three friends turned into sixty teens bound and determined to have a good time. Things got out of hand – no surprise.
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? Steven L. Pastyrnak, Ph.D., division chief, Pediatric Psychology at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, MI, says, "It depends on their maturity level and their previous track record more so than their age. 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. Dr. Pastyrnak suggests, "Sometimes teens can benefit from several dry runs during which parents leave them home alone for short periods and then gradually work up to longer time periods as trust is developed."
Be sure you've gone over all rules associated with this responsibility. Don't assume he knows what is expected. Be honest with your teen about "why" your rules are important. “Because I said so” may not be an adequate enough reason for some teens.
Dr. Pastyrnak advises, "When home alone, it is important for teens to learn to be safe, to learn to be independent and to take advantage of the opportunity to build their parents’ trust. 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? Dr. Pastyrnak cautions, "This depends on the values of both sets of parents as well as the previous history of the teens. 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."
Be sure you can reach your teen at all times. "With today's technology, teens can check in with their parents with a quick text or phone call," Dr. Pastyrnak says.
If your teenager has consistently demonstrated mature decision making, trust that she will make the right choices if she is left alone. Dr. Pastyrnak believes that in order to develop a sense of trust within the household, parents should assume that their kids are innocent until proven guilty. He explains, "Part of growing up is learning how to be independent and to take care of oneself, even when nobody is watching." However, teens should also be aware that there will be strict consequences if they break the rules. Consequences might include losing driving privileges or restrictions on cell phone use.
For parents seeking extra assurance, 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. If you feel the need to set up a camera, maybe she shouldn't be left alone.
Dr. 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. If they were to find out about a hidden camera, it might damage their trust of their parents." Pastyrnak believes that the tangled 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."
Myrna Beth Haskell is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Rochester Area & Genesee Valley Parent Magazine who lives in Salt Point, NY. She is the mother of two teenagers and specializes in parenting issues and children's development.
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. Copyright 2011.