By Melinda Sacks
The first night we decided to go to a movie and leave our teenage son home alone neither my husband nor I enjoyed the show. We took turns checking our cell phones and glancing at our watches. In fact, I can't even remember what movie it was.
But when we got home, Alex, then 13, was hunkered down in the same comfy spot on the sofa, our cat nestled next to him, an empty bowl of ice cream by his side.
The house was still standing, there were no fire engines out in front, the stove wasn't blazing, and Alex wasn't in tears.
It may sound like a small feat to leave a young teen alone for a couple hours with no terrible outcome, but if you are the parent of a child with learning difficulties and attention issues, you will know that it is no small accomplishment. Every child reaches maturity at a different age, and each child - with LD, AD/HD or not - is ready to handle different circumstances at a different age based on individual qualities ranging from temperament and impulsiveness to ability to remain calm in the face of an emergency. We knew from experience that our son doesn't always show the best judgment, so we were never quite sure when it was really safe to leave him alone.
"Many of the principles of when it is all right to leave a child unsupervised are the same for children with LD and AD/HD and those without it," advises University of Santa Clara Professor and Chair of Psychology Tom Plante, who also has a private practice in Menlo Park, California.
"It depends on the level of maturity of the child, what are the contingency plans, and the nature of the parents' concerns. It is important to listen to your gut and your own comfort level. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior."
There is no magic age at which all kids can safely be left alone, stresses Jill Murphy, the mother of two teens with AD/HD who is also the parent support facilitator for the Tacoma, Washington, ADD Resources group.
Murphy recalls the time she left her son Kyle (then 13) home on his own only to find he had decided to "fix" the family's riding lawn mower. Another time Kyle disassembled the home computer. His sister, Brianna (at the age of 12) accidentally set off the smoke alarm and called the fire department when the fire she started in the wood stove got out of hand.
While everything turned out all right in all cases, Murphy says she learned a great deal from the experiences about establishing specific rules and checking in frequently when she was out. Today, four years later, her kids are also older, wiser, and very independent.
Leaving more than one child when you go out can make the decision of when it is safe for them to be unsupervised even more complex. If it is your older child who is of concern, you will need to be more conservative, say therapists. Be sure both siblings know the rules and be clear about who is in charge. If the relationship between siblings is not a positive one, it may be wise to give your child with LD and/or AD/HD a chance to first practice independence alone - without the responsibility of worrying about a brother or sister.
A good planning step for the parent preparing to leave a child unsupervised is checking with local authorities such as the fire and police departments to ask for their input, suggests Murphy, who points out different communities may have different local laws. The community relations officer in Murphy's city echoed the advice that taking small steps toward unsupervised time is always wise. Most city municipalities have a phone number for non-emergencies listed under the fire and police departments - a good place to start if you are looking for guidelines where you live.
"One of the first things I did was involve my kids in coming up with a plan," recalls Murphy. "You run through case scenarios and rehearse. You let them come up with ideas about what could happen. You think about how does this child handle a crisis? Do they freeze? Do they have good decision-making skills? Then it is in small bites."
First, Murphy left her kids while she walked to a neighbor's to borrow milk. Then she tried a run to the neighborhood grocery store. Each time she'd evaluate how it went. And of course some times were better than others. She used mishaps as teaching moments.
Chris Zeigler Dendy, author of Teenagers with ADD, Teaching Teenagers with ADD and ADHD, and most recently the book, A Bird's-Eye View of Life with ADD and ADHD, also has personal experience with what works when leaving kids alone. "You should presume they have a 30 percent delay in their level of maturity," says Dendy, referring to the work of Dr. Russell Barkley of SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. With Barkley's formula, says Dendy, an 18-year-old acts more like a 12-year-old. Realizing this helps you make decisions and act appropriately.
"It's, 'Ready, fire, aim, whoops,'" she says, recalling the numerous misadventures of her own three children who were all diagnosed with AD/HD. "It's their inability to plan ahead, their impulsiveness. They're good kids but they tend to be more daring and less mature."
In our case the question of when to leave our son unsupervised was complicated by the fact that often he did not want to be left alone. It was my husband and I who needed "couple time," but if we planned to go to a movie and leave our 15-year-old son on his own for a few hours, he'd complain and ask why he couldn't just go to the movies with us. Of course there were many times we did that, too.
It was only after telling a therapist how hard it was for my husband and me to go out as a couple that we finally gave ourselves permission to say some nights were just for the two of us. We'd provide Alex with pizza and a movie, and of course a cell phone to reach local neighbors or grandparents. Little by little the arguments stopped and our occasional nights out became more regular, and less worrisome.
Today, 17-year-old Alex, who has completed the Red Cross' First Aid Certification, doesn't even look up when we go out, and he's begun babysitting for families of elementary school-aged kids. In fact he's handled several minor emergencies on his own. But it was an unquestionably longer journey than for friends whose kids did not have attention or learning issues.
Of course there are teens with LD and/or AD/HD who should not be left unsupervised because, based on their behavior or lack of maturity, you know they cannot be trusted. In these cases, suggest experts, arranging to have a slightly older and trusted family member or friend stay home can be a good alternative. Each family will have to set a timetable that works for their particular teen and circumstances.
Parents have to think about what the most worrisome scenario is, says psychologist Plante. "Is it the wild party with drinking and carousing, or is it picking on a younger sibling? An important question is, 'What is the worst thing that could happen and how do you problem-solve?'"
To deal with the dilemma of when to start letting your child stay alone or be left in charge of younger siblings and how to prepare, experts suggest taking some or all of the following steps:
Now that our son has become comfortable with being left alone for the evening, and has proven he's reliable, we are facing a new hurdle - what to do if we are going to be gone overnight. While many of our friends now leave their 16- and 17-year-old kids alone when they go out of town, our son doesn't want that much time home alone. But of course he also doesn't want a babysitter.
Our salvation has come in the form of responsible young adults, family friends in their 20s, who are delighted to escape roommates and a tiny apartment to sleep over at our house, make some money, and have a dinner out. Alex is happy with their company so far, and we don't spend our rare weekend away fretting about his well-being.
I have to admit, though, I am not looking forward to that first weekend when he is master of the house. We will be taking more small steps and undoubtedly making lots of cell phone calls.