- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 11, 2005

Denise Candell doesn’t mind that her teenage daughter, Sarah, stays up way past midnight during the summer. However, she wants the 16-year old to be a night owl at home — not out with her boyfriend or gal pals.

“There’s so much out there. Too much can happen,” says Mrs. Candell, of Arnold, Md. “There’s drugs, driving too fast, driving under the influence. … The chances of being in an accident at night are much greater.”

Mrs. Candell and her husband, Michael Candell, don’t have an explicit curfew for Sarah, but the teen knows they want her home around midnight, and she doesn’t question it.

“I think it’s fine. I’d rather have their trust and not have to call in every five minutes,” Sarah says.

Enforcing curfews in the summer can be tough on parents, though, says Neil Bernstein, author of “How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do if You Can’t.”

“A 15-year-old might say, ‘Everyone else gets to stay out later,’ and this puts a lot of pressure on the parents. But they have to do what they feel comfortable with,” says Mr. Bernstein, a clinical psychologist in the District.

He suggests that the parents, in this case, can say, “Well, you’re not ‘everyone else,’ you’re our daughter, or son, and it’s you that we love and are concerned about.”

Rarely, in retrospect, do parents regret setting curfews too early when their teens start dating or driving. If anything, they regret giving their teens too much leeway too soon, he says.

To strengthen their case, parents can cite state and local laws on night-driving restrictions and curfews for teens, he says.

“I think it must be a relief for parents to be able to say, ‘It’s the law,’” he says. “It takes some of the pressure off them if they can put the responsibility on ‘Big Brother.’”

Virginia, Maryland and the District all have graduated licensing laws, which means teens younger than 18 can’t drive a car past midnight during the summer. During the school year, the cutoff is 11 p.m. on school nights in the District; in other jurisdictions, the cutoff is midnight.

In addition, hundreds of cities across the nation have curfew laws, banning teens from loitering in public places between certain hours. Locally, Prince George’s County and the District of Columbia have curfew laws.

Though these curfew laws may be nice props for parents, it is unclear whether they are effective in keeping teens out of trouble, says Robert Shepherd Jr., a professor emeritus of law at the University of Richmond.

“There’s a big debate about the effectiveness of curfews,” says Mr. Shepherd, who specializes in juvenile law. “By virtue of having a curfew, it does tend to limit the number of juveniles who are walking the streets, … but the highest rate of delinquent behavior actually occurs between 3 and 6 p.m., not at night.”

Nevertheless, Glenn Ivey, state’s attorney for Prince George’s County, says curfews should not be written off.

“I think it could be a useful too, but only when it’s done the right way,” Mr. Ivey says.

He acknowledges that current staffing and crime-fighting priorities in his jurisdiction probably are not ideal for enforcing curfew laws.

Still, curfews are an important parenting device to establish and enforce structure and promote safety, Mr. Shepherd says — but they can’t exist in a vacuum.

“Curfews can only be effective if there is a strong and meaningful relationship between the parents and teenager,” he says.

Michael Riera, author of “Staying Connected to Your Teenager: How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They’re Really Saying,” agrees.

“The stronger your connection, the more influence you have with your teenager,” he says.

Effective communication

A large part of creating the connection, Mr. Riera says, is establishing and nurturing good communication.

Because teens have a different, delayed sleep cycle, this can mean meaningful conversations happen late at night. Even if parents would like nothing more than to go to sleep, Mr. Riera recommends that they stay up and talk.

“If they’re offering it in the middle of the night, it’s a gift, and we need to grab it when it’s there,” he says.

Mrs. Candell says she often takes the opportunity to have important talks late at night or in the car during what she calls “in-between” times.

“You’d better listen when they’re ready to talk,” she says. “We often talk about alcohol, staying out late, driving under the influence, pregnancy and drugs when we’re in the car driving somewhere,” she says.

In establishing a strong connection, it’s also important that parents — while they have the ultimate say — seriously weigh any input from the teen, Mr. Riera says.

“Teenagers want to think they have some influence over the rules,” he says. “It’s a great motivator for them to feel like they have a voice in decisions that affect them.”

He suggests that a basic summer curfew — it’s reasonable that it’s set later than the school-year curfew — be discussed and set in the spring. Once summer arrives and teens prove they can be responsible, parents can sit down again with their teens and renegotiate exceptions to the rule.

“Flexibility is not the enemy of structure,” Mr. Riera says. “If you can work with me on this, I can be flexible.”

“Work with me” in this case refers to the teens’ ability to ensure that they will be safe and in close contact with their parents in return for a more liberal curfew.

Having some flexibility along with basic rules will help parents accommodate some variance in the teen’s mood and “daily form.”

“We act as if teens are the same person all the time, but none of us are. We have good days, bad days and average days,” he says.

He recommends that parents gauge what kind of day the teen is having before imposing restrictions.

“If the teen is having a really bad day, maybe that’s not the time to let them stay out really late,” he says.

Mr. Bernstein also says that for curfews to be effective, teens must be completely clear on their parents’ expectations, such as if and when the teens must call home and check in and when they’re expected home.

Also, it should be clear what the consequences are if they miss their curfew, he says. Common consequences include losing cellular phone privileges and access to a car as well as being grounded.

However, parents also have to be sure their curfews are reasonable or they won’t be effective, says Mr. Shepherd, the law professor. A 9 p.m. curfew for a 17-year-old, for example, probably would backfire, he says.

“If they’re not reasonable, they just become another combative flash point …,” he says.

Life lessons

Talking and negotiating with their parents about curfews and other types of restrictions also can help teens learn important life lessons, Mr. Bernstein says.

“You learn that you don’t always get what you want, you learn to compromise, and you learn that actions speak louder than words,” he says.

Teens also can learn the two-way street of trust. If they and their parents build up trust, the benefits are mutual, says 16-year-old Sarah.

“I don’t want to lose their trust and have to call them all the time and tell them every single detail or where I am and what I am doing,” she says.

Her mother, Mrs. Candell, says she is more likely to make exceptions to the house rules because Sarah has been very responsible so far. She never has violated her parents’ trust, Mrs. Candell says.

“Would I let her stay at a party ‘til 2 a.m.? It just depends on the circumstances. I might,” she says, “but there would have to be parents present.”

Teens also can learn empathy during curfew discussions, Mr. Bernstein says. Parents can talk to their teens about their own sleep needs — that they need to go to work refreshed and that they can’t relax until their children are safe at home.

Sarah and her mother, though, say they don’t think teens would care about their parents’ possible sleep deprivation.

“It’s all about ‘me’ for teens. It’s not about the parents,” Mrs. Candell says.

Her daughter adds: “It’s the parents’ problem if they can’t go to sleep. That’s their choice.”

Whether that’s true or not, parents across the nation likely are thinking the same thing as the summer begins, Mr. Bernstein says: “Oh no, here we go again, it’s the summer curfew nightmare.”

More info:

Books —

• “How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do if You Can’t,” by Neil I. Bernstein, Workman Publishing Co., 2001. This book gives parents advice on how to guide their children through the sometimes thorny teenage years. It covers topics such as setting limits (including curfews), building self-esteem and instilling morality and empathy.

• “Staying Connected to Your Teenager: How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They’re Really Saying,” by Michael Riera, Perseus Publishing, 2003. This book gives parents strategies for improving communication and creating a connection with their teenage children. Teenagers are more likely to adhere to parental guidelines and restrictions if they have a solid underlying connection with their parents, according to the book.

• “Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy! Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind,” by Michael J. Bradley, Harbor Press Inc. 2003. This book gives advice on rule-making, enforcement and problem-solving strategies. It covers topics such as modeling appropriate values and behaviors as well as respecting a teen’s space and choices. It includes information on how to set curfews.

Associations —

• The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 1005 N. Glebe Road, Suite 800, Arlington, VA 22201. Phone: 703/247-1500. Web site: www.highwaysafety.org. This nonprofit organization does research on traffic safety and aims to reduce the number of deaths, injuries and property damage resulting from crashes on the nation’s highways. The group provides information and articles on restricted driving laws for teenagers.

Online —

• About.com, a media company owned by the New York Times, has a Web site aimed at parents of teens (www.parentingteens. about.com). This site has tips for parents on how to establish and enforce curfews.

• Teenagerstoday.com (www.teenagerstoday.com), a Web site run by IParenting Media, has information on curfews. It also has articles on how parents can maintain good communication with their teenage children.

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