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By Melinda Sacks
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.
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