Dear Dr. Batya,
My teenage son has already let me know that his plans for the summer months consist of "hanging out" at night late with his friends, getting up around noon and "chilling" after his hard year with matriculation exams. I hate the thought of him doing nothing all day and being out all night and feel angry already. Help!
- N.R., Jerusalem
Sounds like his idea of a great summer is your idea of torture. He is excited and you are dreading it. What he sees as important you don't. He is looking forward to lowering his stress level, getting some much-needed sleep and finally socializing. In general these really are not bad values. You on the other hand, I suspect, would like to know where he is and when he'll be around; you'd like him doing something "useful" during the day and you'd like him to sleep at "normal" hours at night. These too are good values. They just clash with those of your son.
How will you handle the summer and how will you handle your son? Do you intervene or not? Will you maintain your sanity and enjoy the summer or spend it feeling angry and resentful? This is a choice you alone will have to make. That said, you have to carefully pick your issues, hold firm, set limits that you are comfortable with, remind him of the household rules and guide him with consistency and love.
When I think of how I've parented throughout the years, I realize that I have been a bit of a warden. I am firm, but try as much as I can to be respectful of my children. My children were the ones that came home, even though "every" other child in the neighborhood was "allowed to" stay out, go places or do anything else that we didn't approve of. In the end, our children have actually thanked us. I believe that children of all ages need guidance and thrive on structure. Discipline begins at home. They may ask for the world, but they don't need or really want it. Give your children choices. Present options.
If you have concerns, then you need to address them. For example, would you like your child to have a curfew? If so, what is reasonable? Decide what you think is reasonable given his age and the situation and set it. If you mind him walking home alone at night, then you need to be available to get him or ensure that he has a way home. If you don't, then it is not a concern. I personally am not sure that girls should be walking home alone after dark. It takes just one incident. I'd rather that families talk about this with their teen before there is a problem. Perhaps her friends could also walk her home.
Do you mind if your child is out every night? If so, have your son invite his friends over to your place from time to time. Are you concerned about what he is doing and with whom he is doing it? Has he paired off or is he in a group? Do you feel a group of teens alone need supervision? Can he "hang out" on the street? Is he involved in structured activities such as a youth group or city program? Is he involved with alcohol or drugs, and where and how does he get spending money? How does he use it?
Are you concerned that your son isn't getting enough sleep or that he is getting it at the wrong time? While it is disruptive having a child go to bed at 3 a.m. when you have to get up at 6, it is his vacation. Given their own schedule, most adolescents would go to bed very late and get up late morning or early afternoon. Not having this option all year, this is one of the reasons they are chronically exhausted. In the summer, assuming that they don't have to get up, they finally sleep longer hours. In August, you may have to help him shift his sleep cycle so that when classes start he can be awake.
Finally, what are your concerns about him "chilling" during the day? Is it that he is lying on the couch, glued to the television or computer, not helping around in the house or not out getting a job? How do you feel about him having some time to unwind after a stressful year? How do you feel about his work schedule or lack thereof? Did he try to find a job if he is old enough? Could he walk the dog, house or child sit, help you do some chores to make some pocket money? Although I prefer to reward a child for good behavior, if need be, you can warn your son that he is at risk of losing privileges such as computer time and cellphone usage.
When setting limits, as your son shows that he is responsible and respectful and can come home on time, you should let him have increasingly more freedom, such as taking the car, being on the computer and staying out late on occasion. So while you can't actually force a child to come home, go to bed or get up, hopefully you'll never have to. With good parenting and a bit of good luck, you can all have an enjoyable summer.
The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana. email@example.com
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