Originally posted in The Globe and Mail
If you don’t leave alcohol, money or prescription drugs lying around, chances are the worst they’ll get up to is sleeping and playing video games all day
“Oh boy. Oh boy. Oh boy. Home alone. This is so cool. Now I get to do anything I want and there’s nobody here to stop me or even know that I’m doing it. Am I going to have a good time.”
“Yes, that is exactly what I worry about. Now that it’s summer, and he has no school; and I have to work and he hasn’t been able to get a job, he’s going to be home alone for these big chunks of time with zero supervision. It would be great if I could afford to get him into a good summer program. But I can’t. It’s my nightmare. All the trouble he’s going to get into at the house.”
In a world where most parents work, and have little ability to dictate their hours, summer with young teenagers presents a problem. Can they, if necessary, be left for hours with no adult at home?
Twelve or 13 is usually thought of as the age when it’s safe to leave kids at home alone.
Obviously this can vary with the relative maturity of the child. But that safety is mainly about whether they can be trusted to know what to do in an emergency, and not to be duped into letting strange people into the house.
And young teens can be a bit intimidated about being alone for long periods of time. This is why – despite their objections that it’s unnecessary – it’s a good idea to call a couple of times a day, not so much to check up on them as to reassure them:
“What are you doing?”
“Reading poetry and then I’m going to clean up the kitchen like you asked me to.”
“That’s nice, dear.”
It makes them feel a little less alone. You must also always make sure they know of an adult – if not you – whom they can contact immediately if there is a problem.
But beyond safety, parents worry about naughtiness. One basic point about teens is that you can trust some, but many – often quite good kids – you can’t.
Below is a list of some worrisome activities – there are of course more, but this is a good sample – that they might get up to:
Drink or use drugs.
Explore the house for anything that might be of interest – alcohol, prescription drugs, money.
Have friends over whom you don’t want over and do bad stuff. See above.
Go to websites you do not want them to go to.
Make big messes.
The list is obviously the same as what might happen during the school year. It’s just that in the summer there is much more opportunity.
But it turns out that, despite our worries, most summer home-alone teens do not make big trouble. The biggest home-alone problem is not what they do, but what they don’t do.
They don’t get up before noon. Or do anything other than play video games, go on Facebook, receive and send half a thousand text messages or watch television. They don’t do anything that requires them to move.
If they are home alone for regular long periods here are a couple of tips:
Teen-proof your house. Don’t have alcohol easily available. Don’t leave prescription drugs easily accessible – over the past decade this has become a major source of teenage drug abuse. Do not leave money around that you do not want to be taken. Or credit cards. Good kids with easy access often give in to temptation.
Do call regularly.
If you can, have an adult – best if it is you – occasionally stop by unannounced, and let them know this might happen.
Plan activities for them, including having friends over or going over to friends’ houses. Some teens are good at initiating plans, but many are not.
Be willing – even if it is an extra burden for you – to sometimes go out with them at the end of the day – swimming, to a mall, even a weekday movie.
For summer home-alone teens there is no question that there are risks – of forbidden behaviour, of a total lack of behaviour. But with some effort on your part, it’s not usually as bad as you might fear.
“Oh boy. Oh boy. Oh boy. I’m going to sit in front of the TV and watch the same episode of Rogue Cops over and over again the whole day. And then I’m going to do exactly the same thing the next day and nobody can stop me. Oh boy.”
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books.