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Asking your 18-year-old to check in at all hours can wreck your sleep and prolong your worrying

Dear Dr. Wolf,

Our 18-year-old son has moved back home for the summer after being in residence at university for a year. He comes and goes as he pleases. But I asked for one thing: that he phone if he's planning to stay out all night. I can't help that I worry. My husband says it's irrational and worrying doesn't solve anything. Recently, our son went to a party and when he wasn't home by 3 a.m. I phoned him. He could barely hear me and said he wouldn't be home until much later and not to worry. I disturbed my husband's sleep and he ended up getting up at 3 a.m., unable to fall back to sleep. My husband doesn't think I should enforce this phone rule because he doesn't want our son to move out. Do you think I'm being unreasonable?

Sleepless Mom

Dear Sleepless Mom,

Kids will say that one of the great things about being away at university is that if they’re staying out until God knows when, doing God knows what, their parents aren’t there to worry about it.

Parents will say that one of the great things about having their kid away at university is that if he’s staying out until God knows when, doing God knows what, they aren’t there to worry about it.

One of the spectacular differences between living at home during high school and then living away at university – kids themselves are surprised by the degree to which this is true – is the strange hours that people are up and around doing stuff.

At university, 3 a.m. becomes the new 8:30 p.m. Your teen gets used to setting his own hours. Then he comes home.

He isn’t necessarily engaged in naughty behaviour. Probably he’s just on the computer or hanging out with friends. But he’s gotten used to the new deal – his more grown-up status – and he doesn’t think anybody else should have a problem with it. After all, he did survive.

I can still recall the first time we let our now-grown son ride his bicycle so far down our street that we could no longer see him. He was to bike to the golf course, then come back. I remember watching him disappear out of view, then waiting.

I remember that as I waited I was mainly listening for police sirens, then for the police to bring us the bad news. But after about 15 minutes, there he was pedalling back. His survival that first time did not end my worrying each subsequent time he rode away on his bike, but with each instance of his survival I definitely worried less.

It is a very similar issue that gets played out once your child is an adult but living at home. For many parents, it’s impossible not to worry. That’s normal.

You have to do what feels right to you. It’s not unreasonable to ask a son to call in the middle of the night if his plans change and he’s be staying out all night – just to let you know so you won’t worry.

But here’s a possible alternative: If he does unexpectedly stay out for the night, he will call the next day to let you know that he’s okay. This, of course, means that you can’t be certain before you hear from him that he is okay.

This would be a new deal that recognizes he’s now an adult: You gradually get used to the idea that time will go by during which you won’t know for sure that he is okay, but you can expect that he probably is okay.

You can never completely get rid of the occasional nagging fear, the flash of some disaster that you imagine could happen. But the good news is that, with time, most parents do get used to it. To their surprise, most find that they actually can fall asleep.

He does live at your house. You do have a right to demand of him that he not cause you unnecessary worry. But do you really want 3 a.m. check-ins, or do you want to move on to full adult status?

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books.

Source: Toronto Globe and Mail