Is it OK for Teens to Stay Home Alone?
Your children have reached their teen years and you no longer need a babysitter. You are thinking about finally going out on a worry-free “date” with your spouse. With no babysitter to drive home, you can actually linger over coffee.
You may want to think again. Are you really relaxing with your teen home alone? Teens are unpredictable and don’t always think things through. Things can go awry even for those who mean well. 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 60 teens determined to have a good time. Things got out of hand — no surprise.
With teens the question is not can they be home alone, but should they be home alone. The answer depends on your teen’s level of maturity and history following rules and making good choices.
Consider past history
What is an appropriate length of time to leave teens 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. Steven Pastyrnak, pediatric psychologist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich. “A teen with 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 time alone, it’s good to start slowly. “Sometimes teens can benefit from several dry runs in which parents leave them home alone for short periods and then gradually work up to longer time periods as trust is developed,” Pastyrnak suggests.
Establish clear rules
Be sure you’ve gone over all rules associated with being home alone. Don’t assume your teen knows what is expected. Be honest about why your rules are important. Teens might be skeptical of the “because I said so” reason.
“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 parent’s trust,” Pastyrnak says. “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 says. “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,” Pastyrnak says.
Believe in innocent until proven guilty
If your teenager has consistently demonstrated mature decision-making, trust that she will make the right choices if left alone. Pastyrnak believes that to develop a sense of trust within the household, parents should assume that children are innocent until proven guilty. “Part of growing up is learning how to be independent and to take care of oneself, even when nobody is watching,” he says.
However, teens should also be aware that there are strict consequences if they break the rules. Consequences might include losing driving privileges or restrictions on cell phone 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. Setting up hidden cameras, however, might be going overboard. If you feel the need to install a camera, maybe she shouldn’t be left alone.
“Although teens may have a tendency to test limits and rebel, they need opportunities to prove themselves and to learn important life skills,” Pastyrnak says. “If they were to find out about a hidden camera, it might damage their trust of their parents.”
He 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,” Pastyrnak says.
Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer and columnist specializing in parenting issues and child and adolescent development. Her work appears in publications across the United States and Canada. She is the mother of two teenagers.