Adolescence and Curfew

A curfew limits late night freedom out for safety's sake

Posted Dec 12, 2011

Adolescents are nocturnal creatures.

Just when parents are ready to wind down, get some sleep, and recover from the demands of job and family, their adolescent winds up for the possibiities of night time play. As one teenager put it, ‘Night is the best part of my day."

This later night freedom is one measure of growing older. Children have an early bedtime, but adolescents expect to have more staying up time.

As for going out at night, that is when most social fun occurs - hanging out, attending events, dating, going to parties. And if they are feeling tired from a late night out, they can catch up by sleeping later into a weekend day. This pattern of up late/sleep late, however, can often offend parents who believe a teenager should be awake and active by a "reasonable hour." Many parents seem to consider 'sleeping in' on the weekends a kind of sin -- a sign of sloth.

Of course, setting a curfew to the teenager's satisfaction is hard to do, because a curfew limits social freedom. Often there are two curfews: for the school night and for when school is not in session. The second is most frequently contested. "Why,' asks the teenager, "can't I stay out later on weekend nights? There's nothing bad that can happen to me at 1:00 in the morning that can't happen to me at 11:00 at night?"

This argument is true and false. True: being out on the earlier curfew is no absolute protection against harm that can happen when returning home at the later time. But false in this: The later you are out, the more you are exposed to people are fatigued, who are celebrating, who are drug or alcohol affected, who are more inclined to social violence, who are more likely to have a fatal car accident. "Eighteen percent of fatal crashes during the day are alcohol-related, while 54% of crashes at night are alcohol-related." (Forbes.com, 01/21/09.) So the parental message to teenagers pressing for a later curfew is that they must commit to staying mindful of the higher risks by agreeing to keep their sober wits about them.

A curfew not only protects a teenager from exposure to late night risks, but it also protects her from responsibility. It relieves the young person from having to make a social decision about when to leave the party because the time of return has already been decided. Now she can save face and escape peer pressure by blaming her departure on overprotective parents.

A curfew is usually a contract in four parts. Part one is the agreed upon time of return. Part two is the information parents need to know. For example: "Where are you going, how will you travel, who will be your companions, and what do you expect to be doing? When plans or circumstances change, you will let us know, and you will wake us when you return so we know you are home safe." Part three is accessibility to communication: "You will answer your cell phone promptly should we find it necessary to call or text." Part four is managing later night out freedom without troubling or harmful incident. The more faithfully the teenager keeps the curfew contract, the more curfew freedom the teenager is likely to get.

Adolescents have a higher tolerance of nocturnal risks, or more denial of them, than do parents who are in the business of setting a safe curfew, because that is what a curfew is - a safety limit that moderates exposure to late night dangers.

For the teenager, one problem with a parental curfew is that is not rationally set. After all, it's hard to come up with a logical "reason" to justify being home by 11:30 instead of 12:30. What really justifies the difference is emotional: parental comfort, or what one mother explained was keeping the teenager within her "worry wall."

"‘Worry wall?' What is that about?" demanded the teenager.

"I need to keep you walled in enough at night so I don't go to frantic with worry about what could happen if you're out too late. So really, the curfew is probably as much for my own peace of mind as it is for your safety. A curfew sets my tolerance for how late I can stand having you away from home at night."

To which the high school senior responded in outrage: "Why should your fear limit my freedom? You're not protecting me for my sake; you're protecting me for your sake! That's not fair! In less than a year I'll be living away from home setting my own curfew, and you won't know what my hours are then. So why not let me learn to set my own schedule now?"

The teenager's suggestion can be a good one. Negotiating a flexible curfew senior year in high school can train him to responsibly manage increased social independence soon to come. Young people who are too tightly structured at home senior year are more likely to burst out and abuse their newfound freedom when they leave. Going "college crazy," for example, they run wild with freedom freshman year (up all night and sleeping days) until, from facing probationary consequences, they have to adequately "curfew" their social freedom or risk being expelled.

Then of course there are a few late adolescents, maybe 17 years old or so, who want to live at home but feel entitled to throw off all the traces by rejecting any parental curfew: "I'll stay out as late as I like, overnight if I want to, and you can't stop me!" Very occasionally, with an older adolescent who is determined to run curfew-free, parents may be tempted to try 'grounding out.'

Different from 'grounding in' and limiting freedom, 'grounding out' is about limiting late night access to home. "How late you stay out after our curfew is your decision; but when you are allowed to return and get back in is up to us." While grounding out puts the right to home access in play, and reminds the adolescent of this dependency, the problem is putting the young person at the mercy of unsafe emergency arrangements they might feel forced to make.

On balance, this strategy is not worth the risks. Best to keep the sanctuary of home unconditional and always open.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry (by request): How Divorce impacts Young Children Compared with Adolescents