Older Adolescence and Setting One's Own Curfew

When is a teenager old enough to manage their nighttime schedule?

Posted Jul 14, 2014

The question was whether a graduating senior, about to turn 18 and going off to college in the fall, should set her own curfew while still living at home that summer. The teenager voted for “yes” to be let go, but the parents were voting “no” and holding on. How to decide?

The matter of curfew raises both specific and symbolic issues. Specifically, curfew has to do with how late an adolescent is allowed to stay out by parents who set a time she has to be home. Symbolically, curfew has to do with parents setting limits on the adolescent’s personal and social freedom at an older age.

On the adolescent’s side, the young person can cite approaching majority when legal status of age 18 confers adult standing in all kinds of ways–like the right to vote, enlist in the military, and so on. Besides, in a few months she will be living away from home and doing her own scheduling, so why not begin this summer? “Soon, you won’t know what hours I keep, so why not get in practice now?”

On their side, parents can insist that so long as the teenager is in residence, depending on their care, she has to live on their terms to some degree. In the case of curfew, this limit is set not just to limit her safety by reducing her exposure to late night dangers, but is set based on their needing her back at certain time so they can relax, knowing she is safely home. “While you live with us, we can’t ignore the hours you keep. So as a courtesy to us, you must tolerate our tolerance for how late you stay out. The curfew is not entirely about wanting to limit your freedom for safety's sake; it is also about us wanting to limit our worry.”

Living at home after high school graduation age, setting one’s own curfew is a common teenage request. In general, I think parents need to place their response within the context of two factor–their own changing stage of parenting and the teenager’s fast approaching final stage of adolescent growth.

The parental stage is marked by coming to the end of Detachment Parenting, managing their final steps of letting go, putting themselves out of the adolescent management business, now offering themselves in a mentoring capacity if and when asked.

The adolescent stage about to begin is the hardest and last, Trial Independence (about ages 18 to 23), when the young person, leaving home, is faced with more personal freedom and self-management responsibility than experienced before.

One reason why parents are reluctant to let go of curfew and other time management controls while the young person is still living at home is the agony they experience when seeing scheduling errors occur that negatively impact the young person’s life.

For example, they see their teenager wait until the last minute to complete a school assignment and barely finish or wait so late the deadline is missed. Or they see their teenager oversleep and arrive late where he was supposed to be on time. Or they see their teenager forget an important commitment because no timetable was created to organize activities. Or they see their teenager under stress from choosing to do too much in too little time. Or they see their teenager rushing to get something done only to do it badly in haste. Or they see their teenager exhausted by too many late nights and too little sleep. A lot of parental holding on has to do with helping the adolescent manage time to prevent errors such as these.

So they keep structuring and supervising their teenager’s use of time so schedules are followed, routines are observed, tasks are accomplished, commitments are remembered, and enough sleep is secured. But at this late stage of adolescence ending the high school years, which is a staging area for more freedom to come, consequence-based education, painful thought it can be, is usually the most influential instructor. “Better to learn the hard way while still at home than a harder way when you’re out on your own.”

It can be helpful at this difficult letting go point for parents to place who decides curfew into the larger category of Time Management which is only one of a larger set of Life Management skills a young person needs to have responsibly in hand to successfully undertake the next step in more independent living. A few of the basics might be these.

COMMUNICATION: Speaking up for oneself.

EMPLOYMENT: Earning money for oneself.

ENTERTAINMENT: Amusing oneself.

STRESS: Regulating demands on oneself.

EDUCATION: Studying for oneself.

HEALTH: Maintaining wellness for oneself.

CHANGE: Making adjustments for oneself.

SUBSTANCES: Moderating drug use for oneself.

MONEY: Budgeting spending for oneself.

TIME: Scheduling activity for oneself.

As I suggested in my book, Boomerang Kids (2011), it is the failure to master basic life management skills such as these that can contribute to a young person losing footing out on their own and returning home to recover. Constant sleep deprivation, persistent procrastination, forgetting appointments, and refusal to honor deadlines others set, are all time management problems that can defeat attempts at independence.

So it seems to me, for the sake of Parental Detachment and adolescent preparation for Trial Independence, turning over curfew setting responsibility to a graduated senior is usually wisest, although not emotionally easiest, for parents to do. At the same time, I believe the young person still owes parents the courtesy of keeping them adequately informed about intended late hours so they do not have to unnecessarily wait and worry while getting used to living with this new arrangement.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence, (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: Providing Discipline for your Adolescent