By Jennifer Spengler, a health and wellness writer for Sharp Health News and a marketing specialist with Sharp HealthCare.
I have three daughters and with that blessing comes approximately 1 million worries about what dangers they may encounter when they’re not with me. Many of these fears first took shape when I began to allow them to go over to friends’ houses for playdates and, over time, sleepovers.
For example, when my youngest daughter went over to play with her friend whose dad liked to hunt, I worried if his hunting rifles were safely stored. When my preteen daughter went out to dinner with another family, I wondered if the parents would be drinking during the meal and who would be driving them home. When my oldest daughter went over to a friend’s to get ready for a high school dance, I was concerned the parents might allow the kids access to alcohol.
For the sake of your kids’ safety — and your sanity — just ask
Funny thing is, there is a simple solution to stop these worries. According to Dr. Tonya Henderson, a board-certified pediatrician with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, you just have to ask.
Dr. Henderson says that the simple way to know if it’s safe to send your kids off to be with another family is to ask them questions about the things that worry you most. Once you have the information you need, you can make a knowledge-based decision without worry or fear of the unknown.
She recommends that you ask the parents or guardians of your kids’ friends the following five questions:
- Who will be home and what level of supervision will there be?
- What will the kids be allowed to watch, listen to or play with while there?
- Are there guns or other weapons in the home?
- Will they be going anywhere and who will be taking them?
- What is your policy regarding the use of drugs and alcohol, and will others be using drugs or alcohol while my child is there?
“If the parent is someone your child has known for a long time, you may already be acquainted and these discussions might be easy,” Dr. Henderson says. “However, if the friend is someone your child met recently, you may not know the parents at all, and asking the questions can be awkward.”
If you are concerned bringing up these topics might be too difficult, Dr. Henderson suggests the following alternative method to get the information you need:
- Get the parent’s contact number and introduce yourself with a text or a call.
- Offer to have the kids come to your house first.
- Provide information about how much the kids will be supervised and who will be with them.
- Explain whether you keep weapons and how they are stored if you do, what activities they will be doing, and your rules about substance use, both for adults in the house and visiting teens.
“Most parents are in the same boat and appreciate the communication,” Dr. Henderson says. “People are less likely to feel put on the spot if you’ve already brought up these topics. It doesn't feel as awkward when you ask the questions you’ve already answered, and they might even offer the information without being asked.”
Role-playing, code words and other tricks
The tricky part comes when you don’t like the responses you’re given by other parents — or don’t even receive a response — and don’t want your child to go to their friend’s house.
With younger teens, Dr. Henderson recommends that you just say that you're not confident with the level of supervision there and offer to host if they want to hang out. When it comes to older teens — especially if they consistently get into trouble or break rules with certain kids or at certain houses — let them know that it doesn't seem to be a good combination and they are not allowed to go.
“I generally recommend that you avoid throwing other parents or kids under the bus in front of your own child because you may not always know the whole story,” she says. “Instead, help your teen understand that with increased freedom comes increased responsibility. If they can't handle the responsibility — proven by bad choices and behavior — they aren't ready for that freedom.”
What’s more, Dr. Henderson says it’s important for teens to know how to get out of an uncomfortable situation. She recommends that you take time to role-play a bit before they find themselves in trouble and help them come up with solutions. For example, help them determine what they might say if their ride home is drinking or if they don’t feel safe in someone’s home.
Another great tactic is to give your kids a code word or phrase to use to express "Pick me up now, please, and I'll explain later” in a call or text to you. To their friends, they can just say, "Ugh, my parents are making me come home and are on their way to get me right now."
The ultimate goal is less supervision and more earned freedom
“Generally speaking, teens are impulsive, even more so in larger groups, so bad decisions can happen, even to kids with good intentions,” Dr. Henderson says. “No adolescents are immune to this. Trust your instincts as a parent — you know your child best — and give them the tools to require less supervision, make good choices and right the course when they don’t.”
She recommends that you let your kids know that when they ask for a new freedom or privilege, your answer is often going to be a compromise. Say they ask for privilege C and you are comfortable with privilege A, try giving them privilege B and see how it works out. If they handle the responsibility of the new freedom, they will move toward earning privilege C.
“For older teens, it's also important to let them know that they are at an age where parents don't necessarily dole out the biggest consequences for choices; life does,” she says. “For example, if they operate a car irresponsibly, they could hurt themselves or others — or worse. It goes back to the idea that bigger freedoms equal bigger responsibility.”
Jen Spengler is a health and wellness writer with Sharp HealthCare.