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.
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