Should we leave our teens home alone?
Can leaving bored youngsters at home without supervision during the summer lead to mischief and wild parties?
SCHOOL'S out for summer – but for working parents with teenagers at home, the end of term can set alarm bells ringing.
The recession has brought a big fall in the number of available summer jobs, which means more and more teenagers are at a loose end for several months.
Summer can be a particularly worrisome time for parents who live in towns and villages, where teenagers have easy access to the so-called 'free gaffs' – homes empty of adults during the day.
But parents have other concerns – that teenagers will walk out of the empty house leaving the grill on at full power, invite their friends over and make a mess, have boyfriends in for lengthy periods or rifle the drinks cabinet.
"Parents are concerned about leaving teenagers at home alone. There are no guidelines on it and there's a worry around what age they should be left alone at and what to expect.
"That's the dilemma – at 13 or 14 kids don't want a childminder, yet parents feel they're a bit young to be on their own all day," says Rita O'Reilly of Parentline.
The dearth of summer jobs is another problem – it's given rise to increased concerns about bored teenagers getting up to mischief, says Jackie O'Callaghan of the National Parents Council Post Primary. "Parents are worried that their teenagers might go along with a mad suggestion from a friend, for example," she says, adding that some houses that are free of parents during the working day can become designated 'bases' at which teenagers hang out.
While in many cases one teenager's home merely becomes a focal point for amiable get-togethers, there's always the risk of things getting out of control.
"Having a free gaff just gives the potential for something to happen," she warns.
And parents do worry.
Said one mother: "You're tempted to ring home from work and check up on them – and if they don't answer the phone you get worried. I sometimes found it difficult to concentrate at work."
One family was so concerned that they came together to plan how to keep a teenage grandson out of trouble.
The boy's mum, a single mother who had always been a stay-at-home parent, has recently started a job that keeps her away from home several hours a day.
Concerned about what her 17-year-old grandson, an only child, might get up to during the long summer holidays, his grandmother sought help from the extended family network.
"His mother was at home last summer but now she's out at work – she's a single parent who now works every day from noon to 6pm.
"Once the summer holidays start she's basically gone from the time he gets up to dinner time.
"It was a big worry – he's the eldest of five grandchildren and a role model to the others.
"The concern was what he'd be doing with his friends over the summer.
"My biggest fear was that if a group came together in his home, they could get up to all sorts of mischief.
"We were worried that my grandson's house would become a 'free gaff' for all the pals, and his mother was very concerned that they'd be getting up to no good."
Following a discussion, the family decided to get the boy some work by exploiting his passion for cars and engines.
Step one, his grandmother explained, was to encourage him to get his driving licence.
"We have decided as a family to stay a step ahead so we encouraged him to get a licence to drive a tractor and he's done that now.
"We discussed it as a family and we decided to support my daughter in this way and help to keep the lad on the straight and narrow."
Step two was the offer of summer work on an uncle's farm.
"It will be of benefit to his uncle, who now has an extra pair of hands to help out around the farm and it also relieves the worry for myself and his mother."
"He's very interested in cars and motors, so we decided to use this interest to get him out to work so that he's not spending the summer at a loose end."
There's no doubt that temptation can lie in the way of teenagers with plenty of time on their hands, says 16-year-old Grainne, who lives in a busy Co Cork town.
"Both my parents are out at work during the summer holidays. I stay around the house a good bit, but I know there's stuff going on.
"There's a lot of drinking amongst older boys – they'd start at 4pm and they go to one of the lad's houses and drink cans and then head out at 9pm to some pub and go on to a club."
One mother of two teenagers aged 16 and 18, who lives in Tipperary, says local parents made a communal decision not to allow teenagers into their homes during the day unless an adult was present.
"I don't mind my daughter having a few girls together, or my son having a few boys in, but the rule is they're not to be mixed.
"I try to encourage them to go out to the pool or the library or to the chipper for ice-cream.
"Parents are concerned about teenage pregnancies," she reported.
"Also people are too busy to be coming home from work and tidying up after a gang of teenagers."
Says Anna, another urban 16-year-old whose parents are out at work all day: "I've heard about people smoking weed and cigarettes because by Transition Year some people are developing bad habits – you're not much focused on study in TY and you have a lot of time on your hands."
It's not that teenagers intend to cause trouble – sometimes it just happens, says Lisa, a 16-year-old and another 'home-aloner': "People bring people to their houses during the day when their parents are out.
"Sometimes you'd have young couples going out with each other and they might use the opportunity to get together when the parents are out of the house.
"People would be going into each other's houses.
"Usually one house is the 'base' house, but because people would be worried about the neighbours, they'd go for the more detached houses where parents are away.
"They'd hang out and cook food and stuff.
"I've heard about people going into new houses that haven't been sold, and drinking and kicking the doors and kicking holes in the walls."
However, it's when parents go away on their own for a short summer break, or even in some cases for a full fortnight, leaving teenagers in charge, that the really serious problems can occur.
"When parents are away at night or off on holidays, anything can happen," says Lisa.
"If it gets out that there's a house party on, you'd have some serious troublemakers who would get wind of it and come up. There are a few 16-year-olds like that around here.
"It's the big thing when parents go away on holidays in the summer and leave teenagers in charge – you get the house parties with everyone staying over and the parents don't have a clue."
Some people will take precautions by posting the invitation as a private entry on Facebook, but even so word can get around – and the end result can be devastating.
'Last summer there was a house party around here. The parents were away, the girl put it on Facebook for about 30 or 40 people she knew, but hundreds came to the house and trashed it.
"They were 16 or 17 and they did really nasty stuff – and some of them were her friends!"
"I find it amazing that someone would go away for two weeks and have no one to check in on a 17-year-old," says O'Callaghan.
While your child may never intend to cause trouble, he or she can be overwhelmed by peer pressure, she warns: "The child may not wish to cause trouble, but if word gets out that a free gaff is available, pressure comes on to make use of that gaff.
"Throw in a bit of drink and that's where it starts."
Leaving teenagers home alone for several nights provides space for them to test the waters and try out things they wouldn't try if you're home by 6pm, she says.
So if you have to go away for a few days and you decide to leave your teenagers home alone, it's a good idea to put a responsible adult in place to check in on the situation, even if he or she doesn't actually stay in the house, warns O'Reilly: "Things can get out of control. Because they're still young, kids are immature and often don't understand that people will jump at an invitation to a party – and they also don't understand the broad reach of Twitter and Facebook.
"Some people would be more lax than others about leaving teenagers alone for a night or two, but it would be a good idea to put a caretaker in place," she warns.
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