Dear Doctor George...

Our son is home from college for the summer. He comes and goes as he pleases at school, but now he doesn't get home when he says he will. I wake up in the middle of the night, worry, and can't get back to sleep. My husband and I don't want to be overly-protective parents, but we don't know we can do to give our son the freedom a 20-year old deserves while allowing me not to worry.

... Worried Parent




Dear Worried...

It's a difficult period of transition when a son or daughter comes home from school for vacations. They're accustomed to having a lot of freedom and you're used to having control in your house.

A parent's decision about what kinds of rules to have needs to be based on the particulars of their situation. In making your decision Doctor George has some things for you to think about...

     For instance, you could consider whether your son has been responsible, in the past, with the freedom he had in school. Did he get good grades, for example, while managing in his own time? If so, you're likely to trust him more.

     If your son has a summer job he may need more personal time to be with his friends after work.

     If you have other younger kids at home you may decide to have stricter rules because his behavior sets an example for them.

     If your son's friends and their parents are people you know well and trust, this could also make you feel more comfortable with later hours.

     Doctor George doesn't know if you are younger or older parents, but that could also affect your comfort level since young people tend to stay out later these days than they did in past generations.

     Where you live is another factor that may make a difference in setting a curfew. Living in a big city environment may feel less safe than a quiet rural area where kids are mainly hanging out at each other's homes.

Doctor George suggests considering these sorts of things when making your decision about how late your son should be allowed to stay out. Additionally, these considerations can be generally applied to many other parenting issues, such as what chores your child needs to perform, how clean the house should be, letting them borrow the car, etc.

Once you have thought about your child's behavior, Doctor George humbly suggests also examining your own. There's a point when parents can be overly-protective, when they are fraught with separation anxiety that is lingering on from an earlier stage of their child's development (which is a time when a child rightfully needs constant supervision). Some parents can become neurotic, worrying excessively and constantly fearful of something bad happening. Chances of this are increased if one's own parents were overly anxious, because we all tend to pick up our parent's anxiety. (Overly-anxious parents have been dubbed "helicopter parents" because they hover over their child all the time.) Doctor George is not suggesting that you are in fact being overly protective; just that it never hurts for all us to properly access our role in a given situation. As our children grow up, we need to regularly assess what part of our concerns may be "over the top" and what parts are realistic.

Before discussing these topics with your children, there are a few other things to keep in mind. First of all, it's important for you and your husband to be on the same page. For example, if one of you is more liberal about an issue than the other, then that might require a compromise so that you are both comfortable with the decision. Secondly, in any family discussion of this nature, it's appropriate to validate and acknowledge the things about you child that you are proud of. Rather than only noting examples of where you are concerned or displeased, acknowledge the areas in which your child has taken responsibility. Thirdly, when discussing areas that need improvement, rather than declaring that you're not comfortable and that's that, come up with ways your level of trust can be increased. For instance, maybe your son could TXT you if he's going to be out later than planned. Your phone ringer could be turned off and, if you awoke worried, you could check for messages. Finally, everyone should keep in mind the difference between following rules and being considerate. All of us should be courteous to one another.

Doctor George would like to acknowledge you for caring about establishing appropriate limits for your son while also having an understanding of his growing need for independence. Such empathy and caring are the hallmarks of good parenting.

   Doctor George