How to Set a Fair Curfew with Your Teen

Negotiate consequences, prevent rebellion, and show you care—it is possible!

By Diana Swift
From the print edition, Summer 2011

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Illustration by Helena Garcia

Curfews. The word suggests restrictions imposed by military governments. And to some teens, standard curfews seem just about as bad. In the context of parenting your young teen, a better term, say experts, might be “negotiated times to be home.”

“I don’t believe in setting standard curfews for kids,” says Lisa Bunnage, a Vancouver-based parenting and bullying consultant who specializes in coaching troubled teens. “Each time is something to be negotiated individually,” says Bunnage, a mother of two, one a teen. A typical bargaining scenario might unfold like this: “What’s going on tonight? What time do you want to come home?” “1:30?” “I am not comfortable with that. How about…” or “Let’s negotiate another time.” (But let the curfew be appropriate for the event, she adds. “If it’s New Year’s Eve or prom night, 11 p.m. is not reasonable.”)

Involving your teen in the process of setting home times will result in less resentment and rebellion, says Bunnage. “She’ll feel more responsible and more trusted and therefore be more likely to be happy with the decision that’s made.”

What to Do When Your Child Breaks Curfew
Inevitably, breaches will occur and curfews will be broken. Most teens have cellphones or have a friend with a cell, so if your teen is going to be late, tell her to call—you can discuss the reason when she gets home. No call and home late? Your first instinct may be to punish her right away with some serious grounding, but that is not the best approach, especially with a rebellious child, says Sara Dimerman, a child and family therapist based in Thornhill, Ont. “It can become a vicious cycle, with the child refusing to co-operate next time.” Better to negotiate a consequence ahead of time that’s directly connected to the offence, the more direct the more effective. “You might say, ‘You had me very worried. So next time you want to go out, I may be less inclined to compromise and negotiate on the time you want,’” she says.

Concrete action is another option. If, say, a child stays at a friend’s place past curfew, go there and pick her up. Few teens will let that happen twice. But never have it out with her in the heat of the moment, says Dimerman, the author of two parenting books. “Tell her you’ll discuss it in the morning.”

Virginia MacDonald, a Toronto mom of two teen daughters, believes in related consequences for curfew offences. “My younger girl, who’s now 17, came home late and the immediate repercussion was to lose her public transit pass for a week,” she says. “Since she needed the pass to get around to visit her friends and go out at night, that really hit home.”

While some of his friends rebel at curfews, Charles, 16, of Toronto thinks limits do send a message that your parents care about you and want you to be safe. “I don’t see curfews as being about my parents controlling me,” he says. He self-regulates a return time of nine on weeknights and usually 11 on weekends. “But if there’s something special happening, I can negotiate to stay out until 1 a.m., as long as I check in with them.” His dad, Guy Wilson, says he doesn’t worry too much because Charles stays in touch by phone or texting and he mainly hangs out in the neighbourhood. “But it’s early days and there’s time for trouble yet.”

Charles concedes that were he a girl, his parents might be more concerned. “I have a friend whose parents start to worry if she’s even five minutes late,” he says. “At 15 minutes they key in 9-1-1 on the cellphone, and if she’s half an hour late, they say they’ll press the Send button.” So far they haven’t had to.

When Your Teen Pushes the Curfew Limits
What do you do if your teen calls up 20 minutes before curfew and begs for more time because her friend’s mom said she could stay out later? “First, always say you believe her—even if you don’t,” says Bunnage, who admits the request should raise a red flag. But add that you’re going to call her friend’s parents and offer to pick both kids up from wherever they are. “If it’s a sudden overnight at her friend’s house, tell her you’re going to drive over with her pyjamas and toothbrush.”

The bottom line is to let teens know that whatever they’re doing, you’re going to be involved, explains Bunnage. The more reasonable and fair you are in setting boundaries, the better things will go. As Bunnage notes: “What’s there to rebel against—having a say in their lives?”

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