(The Vancouver Sun, November 18, 2002)
Saleema: My recent segment on BCTV Noon News has led to a very interesting discussion with viewers on teens sneaking out of the house late at night. Of course, sneaking out is not a new phenomenonit is an example of the risk-taking behavior exhibited by teens in their struggle for independence that has been around for years. It goes with out saying that sneaking out is not OK. I repeat, teens, sneaking out is NOT OK! Not only is it disrespectful of house and family rules, it is extremely dangerous and can be a catalyst to involvement in inappropriate or even illegal behavior. Not all teens do it, but those who do need to understand why they need to stop.
So how do we help teens make the decision not to sneak out? This question led me to do an informal research study with the goal of encouraging parents and their teens have a conversation about this issue. At a recent meeting of fellow family life educators, 3 of whom happened to be parents of teenagers, I asked some questions on the topic. I then had a chat with a small group of Grade 9 and 10 students after teaching them a sexual health education class. They kindly answered all my questions and seemed excited to express their viewsthey were probably just relieved that I had finally stopped talking about penises and vaginas!
Although not empirically valid or generalizeable, the findings of my study were interesting and enlightening. Two things struck me in particular: First, the views of parents/educators and those of the teens I spoke with were encouragingly similar. Second, I was reminded once again of how much we adults have to learn from our youth.
When asked what teens do when they sneak out, parents listed activities that ranged from going to parties, hanging out in the park, and seeing boyfriends or girlfriends to drinking alcohol, doing drugs, and being involved in criminal behavior. Not surprisingly, what concerned them most was the possibility of their child finding him or herself in an unsafe situation and not being able to get out of it. One parent warned of the futility of getting into a power struggle with teens on this issue. She has made it clear to her kids that they do not have permission to leave the house after a specific time, but does not feel it necessary to hold them prisoner by setting the alarm when she goes to bed. Instead, these parents prefer to tell their teens I trust you to make the right decision and to empower them to make smart choices about their behavior. They also expressed the importance of teaching teens the assertiveness skills to refuse peer pressure to sneak out. For example, I statements such as I dont want to sneak out because I have soccer practice in the morning can be very effective. Some felt that telling white lies such as I cant sneak out because my dad sets the alarm and they can hear it being turned off is also helpful in some cases. One parent reminded her son not to believe his friends when they justify their behavior by saying; My parents dont care if I sneak out. Not true! When asked about discovering that their teen has been sneaking out, the parents spoke of consequences such as the loss of privileges. When one parent found out her son had snuck out (the bushes in front of the window flattened down to the ground and the muddy footprints through the hallway gave it away), she expressed to him her disappointment in his decision. They then had a conversation about why he would decide not to sneak out in the future.
My younger research subjects agreed that sneaking out is not smart, spoke of the risk of weirdos being out, and felt that police would be less patient with teens out late at night. Of particular interest was their concern that teens sneaking out would be less likely to call their parents to get out of a dangerous situation for fear of getting in trouble not only for being somewhere, but also for being there in the middle of the night. They urged parents to encourage their teens to call them if needed, no matter what time of night. The teens reasoned that people sneak out when they feel too restricted by their parents. If they are not allowed to do anything during the day or in the evening, they rebel and do it at night. They also stressed the importance of parents being flexible when it comes to curfews. One teen remarked that she was glad she had a curfew because it gave her an out from engaging in certain activities, but was appreciative that her parents were open to altering it. If it was the weekend and she was at a friends house close by, for example, she was sometimes allowed to stay out a bit later.
All of the teens I spoke with reported facing peer pressure to sneak out. They responded to this pressure by suggesting alternatives like Why dont you guys just come to my place a bit earlier and Im sure my mom will let us hang out in my backyard. They also spoke of peer pressure to cover for their friends. One teen noted she didnt mind covering for a friend if she knew he or she was safe. Another recalls telling a friend (who told her parents she was spending the night at her house) that it was her decision to be dishonest with her parents, but if they called her, she would tell the truth. When asked about effective consequences for sneaking out, the teens, like the parents, spoke of the loss of various privileges. One suggestion appeared to be unanimous as they exclaimed in stereo, Dont bother grounding uswell just sneak out!