Who's Watching Our Teens?

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Latchkey Leftovers

By Denise Mann
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

Oct. 29, 2001 -- It's 5:30 PM: Do you know where your teenagers are?

No? In that case they may be more likely to take a joyride in your spare car, raid your liquor cabinet, fall in with the wrong crowd, or even become a crime victim in an unsafe part of town.

With dual-income and single-parent families on the rise, more and more preteens and teenagers come home to an unsupervised house after school. These are America's 7.5 million latchkey kids.

Schools, religious institutions, local libraries, non-profit organizations, and commercial establishments have all kinds of after school programs for elementary school kids. But programs for latchkey teens seem to be few and far between.

And that's more than unfortunate. Research shows that children aged 12 to 18 are not just more likely to engage in risky behaviors, but they are also more likely to benefit from positive mentoring. In a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers found that eighth-graders who are unsupervised more than 10 hours a week are about 10% more likely to try marijuana, and twice as likely to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol as are eighth-graders who are never without adult supervision.

"One of the major risk factors for drug use and teenage pregnancy is unsupervised kids, so if your child is out there unsupervised, they are at high risk to get in trouble after school and before a parent gets home," says Phillippe B. Cunningham, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

So short of quitting your job, what can you do to make sure your teens are making the most of their free time?

Ask Not What You Can Do For Your Teens, But What Your Teens Can Do For You

Keeping teens safe starts with "saying 'we need you' as well as trying to make darn sure that there is another adult in that child's life whom they respect, such as a coach or a teacher," says John Calhoun, president and CEO of the National Crime Prevention Council in Washington D.C., a organization aimed at creating safer communities.

"Rather than doing something to teens, let's change our lens to what teens can do for us," he tells WebMD.

Enter community service. "We have found that the number of teens who want to roll up their sleeves and get positively involved in the community is off the charts," Calhoun says.

And now that a lot of schools require community service to graduate, it's a win-win situation. "If your teen is in a context where something positive is going on, his or her chances of being a victim are dramatically reduced," Calhoun says.

"You can really get kids monitored if you get them involved in community services at retirement homes and churches or try to find a niche for a child if they have a particular interest like animals," Cunningham tells WebMD.

Action Plan: Community Baby Sitting

Another idea is to start a babysitting co-op.

"It is an opportunity for getting to know neighbors and working together to get to know the kids," Calhoun says. "Say to neighbors, 'I work and I am a single mom, but for three hours a week I will do something with the neighborhood kids. Communities should consider drop-in centers where parents can leave a child knowing that there is adequate supervision.'

"The key is that a parent has to figure out something for that kid to do," he says. "A lot of teens have jobs at McDonald's or babysitting and that not only consumes time but is fairly instructive or some kids have clear responsibility like caring for a younger brother or sister."

Talking to Your Teen

Parents should always know where their unsupervised children are and what they are doing. "If you have a concern, raise it with your child. Parents need to be nosy and know where their kids are and who they are with and what they are doing, that's a parent's job -- but a child's job is to test limits," Cunningham says.

"Treat teens as potentially responsible as opposed to potentially stupid and dangerous," Calhoun tells WebMD. "Knowing who your teen is and talking to them is absolutely important, but parents should also model [appropriate] behavior. It's important that parents know their kids' friends and their friends' parents."

If alternative adult supervision is not available, parents should make special efforts to supervise their children from a distance. "Children should have a set time when they are expected to arrive at home and should check in with a neighbor or with a parent by telephone according to a regular call schedule," Calhoun advises.

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