Thursday 26 April 2018

Dear David Coleman: When is it time to trust my teenage son home alone?

Photo posed
Photo posed

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. We have three boys age 19, 17 and 16. The eldest didn’t want to come away for a three night break we had planned in Kerry over Christmas. On the morning, he refused to go saying he was old enough to mind himself at home. There was an argument between him and his dad and then he stormed out. He ended up going to a friend’s house and we left for Kerry. My fear was less about him being home alone, but more about others finding out it was a “free house” and it would get out of control. What do you think about teenagers staying home alone?

David replies: I think that leaving our older teenagers at home is a calculated risk. With some teenagers that risk is going to be higher, and with others it will be lower.

Sometimes you can accurately predict the level of risk, with your own son or daughter, because you know them so well. Other times they can really surprise you in a positive or negative way.

In terms of their personal safety, I think it is absolutely fine for a 19-year-old to be left at home alone for a few days. Hopefully all 19-year-olds are able to cook for themselves or creatively fend for themselves by eating at friend’s houses or whatever.

We could also expect that they will be aware enough about their personal security that they lock the house at night, put on the alarms that you might have, and generally take care with electricity, gas and so on.

The bigger dangers, as you have recognised in your query, are usually not about the youngsters themselves and what they get up to in the house, it is about whether they bring friends into your home and how those friends will treat your home. While you may know your son’s friends well, and you may like and trust them to be copped on, we have all heard the stories about house parties that were planned to be small and exclusive, but grew exponentially to become large and seemingly open to anyone that happened to hear about it through social media.

So, our dilemma, in leaving our teenagers at home, is about whether we can trust them. This is where, of course, we are in a bit of a “catch-22” situation. If we never leave them at home then we might never learn if it is safe to leave them at home and so we continue not to know if we can trust them

If we do trust them, by leaving them at home, they might betray our trust by doing the wrong thing — potentially at great cost if the house gets wrecked. The only way to break the deadlock is by actually trusting them.

That is not to say that we should be naive about it and just leave, in a carefree manner, with no discussion about our expectations. Rather it means that we sit down with our son or daughter and talk frankly about what we do and don’t expect them to do in our absence.

Within that, we need to be explicit about the issue of friends being welcome, or not, at the house while we are gone.

If we can be really clear about the parameters about what we consider to be okay and not okay then we can create a contract, of sorts, with our teenagers. We can ensure that they agree to the “rules” for staying at home. Those rules might differ to the usual rules, because the circumstances are different.

If you make that kind of agreement with your son, in advance of being left alone in the house, then it creates the basis upon which you can judge, later, if your trust in him has been upheld or betrayed.

Three days is quite a long time for a youngster to be on his own in the house, if he has never been alone there before overnight, so practically it may not have been feasible for him to stay, without having had some kind of “warm-up” stays alone in advance.

He, perhaps needed to be able to prove to you, by taking smaller levels of responsibility before, and successfully upholding it, that he is able to be alone in the house without disaster.

So, yes, it is good for kids to be able take on the responsibility of being home alone, but they also need to be able to grow into that, by taking on greater levels of such responsibility. But until we give it to them we can’t know what they will do with it. That is the risk we take.

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