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October 3, 2023

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 138

Should Our Teen Stay Home Alone When We Leave Town?

Episode 138

Parents who need to be out of town for the weekend worry their 16-year-old son will throw a party while they’re away. They want to trust him but can’t shake the feeling that something is brewing. What should parents know about leaving teens home alone? And when should they worry? Dr. Lisa explains the potential consequences of allowing teens to host parties. Reena asks if it’s safer to have teens drinking at your home when adults are present. Their conversation also considers what parents might do if they know their teen is headed to a party where drinking – with or without adult supervision – might happen.

October 3, 2023 | 29 min

Transcript | Should Our Teen Stay Home Alone When We Leave Town?

TRANSCRIPT | SHOULD OUR TEEN STAY HOME ALONE WHEN WE LEAVE TOWN?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 138: Should Our Teen Stay Home Alone When We Leave Town?

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

——

Reena Ninan
I can’t believe it’s October already.

Lisa Damour
I know. I know. You don’t want to wish the fall away. But there’s also something really nice when the routines have taken hold. You know, I think I talked about routines more than anything else on this podcast.

Reena Ninan
You do. You say it takes a few weeks for it to set in and then you start to feel better?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, no routines I think are the glue that holds us together alongside sleep being the other glue that holds us together.

Reena Ninan
You have taught me the value of sleep that is for sure. But you know this is also the time in the year where I feel like if you’re a mom, you need a vacation or time to get away.

Lisa Damour
It’s a long stretch. It is a long stretch. I think from the start of school year to Thanksgiving. There’s different you know, communities have brakes within that but like this, it’s a long stretch, Reena.

Reena Ninan
It’s a long stretch from summer to getting them geared up for school. So we got this great question about when you leave town, when is it okay to leave your teen alone, right? Hormones raging, lots of things to think about. I want to read you this letter. Okay: “Hello, Dr. Lisa and Reena, my youngest son just turned 16. Soon my husband and I both need to be out of town over a weekend. Anticipating our absence. My younger son texted me a few weeks ago asking when we would be away. Upon receipt of his message, I had a sinking feeling that he was beginning to make arrangements to host a party in our absence. Given these concerns, we had hoped a family friend might be able to stay at our house while we were away. But she’s unavailable and we can’t think of anyone else to ask. We want to trust him. But we also feel uneasy. We’ve locked all of our alcohol away but we’re still worried. My catastrophe mind imagines him asking two to four friends over but then word spreading that there’s an unsupervised home open to party on that weekend. I’d love any guidance about how to navigate the situation. Thank you in advance for your help.” Well, first off, is this mom’s instincts. Right? Should she be worried about her son hosting a party?

Lisa Damour
Yes. Do a one word podcast this week. Yes. This is really concerning. This is really concerning. Her catastrophizing mind should win the day here. Usually I’ll be on this side of like, no, no people are overreacting. Not on this one.

Reena Ninan
Wow. So what does she do that if you’re saying her instincts are spot on? How does she respond to that?

Lisa Damour
So one of the things I like to do sometimes when I’m caring for people in my practice, is they say like, let’s play worst case scenario game. Okay. So in this situation, the worst case scenario, of course, is it somebody could get hurt an unsupervised party mean, I mean, it can get out of control, a coup could get hurt, a kid could get killed. Okay, so setting that worst case scenario aside, and obviously, that is no small thing to set aside. The other thing that parents need to be mindful of, are the legal implications for them. And there’s a lot of laws that apply in this situation that families need to know about. And when they know about those laws, it actually gets easier to have a conversation with your kid about it. So you know, this is different. I’m not a lawyer. This is different state to state jurisdiction to jurisdiction. But in a lot of places in this country, if there is a party where underage people drink at your home, and you knew or and it’s often written could have known could have had reason to suspect you are liable for whatever happens just the could have known

Reena Ninan
I mean, that’s that’s pretty wide.

Lisa Damour
It is hugely wide. Right, so you can leave town be like don’t have a party. He’ll be like “I’m not having a party,” like great, no parties, you leave town, your kid throws a party. And I think the legal exposure is massive, we can show up, you can get in trouble for the fact that underage minors were drinking on your property. That is the least of your concerns. If your kid gets hurt if a kid leaves the party and hurt someone else, right, I mean, if they’re drunk, and they’re driving, I mean, this could be horrendous. And that it does happen that parents end up in major legal Jeopardy, they can end up in jail for things that happened when they were not home when their kid threw a party. So this is like when I say like, yes, you should be concerned. Yes, you should go down the catastrophizing road. Like this is one where you do not play around.

Reena Ninan
What I’m hearing from you is an unequivocal Do not leave your teenager at home, when you go away on a long weekend.

Lisa Damour
Well, we’ll get into the murky details, but this kid and what she’s describing, he’s like, Hey, when are you guys gonna be gone? Right? And her instincts were like, Ooh, I don’t know, this makes me feel uncomfortable. I think she should pay attention to her gut. So then to your question of like, what does she say to this kid? I think it’s really, really important for teenagers to understand the kind of legal Jeopardy they put their families in. If they have kids over and kids drink, whether or not the parents are there.

Reena Ninan
Walk me through this, Lisa. So say you’re the parent, I want to, you know, the situation with this letter. What would you say to me to get it through my head about just how high the stakes are? If there’s a party thrown, and you’re not around?

Lisa Damour
I think I would say, look, I totally get it. That, you know, it can be tempting to have people over when we’re not here, I also get it that people may want you to do that. Here’s the deal. If anything goes wrong, if a kid shows up and drinks even in our absence, we could be liable. Just because it’s an underage minor drinking on our property. That is the least of our concerns. I would say that just to say the kid in the same way, if a kid leaves and gets hurt, if a kid leaves and hurt someone else, if anything goes wrong, we you know, your father and your mother and I like we, you know, I myself, if I’m the only parent, like are gonna end up in legal jeopardy, the worst worst worst case scenario, we’re going to jail, you’re going to Child Protective Services, right? I mean, like, whoa, right. I mean, like, you could go into, you know, state custody, like, and I really, you know, I try to be very careful about not exaggerating, not using fear as a bit on this one. The worst case scenario is so bad, that it’s really important that parents know. And then also, we help teenagers know how this can go so wrong.

Reena Ninan
So let me ask you this, is it better if the son wants to host a party, there might be alcohol, for you to be at home when this happens?

Lisa Damour
So this is a really interesting question. Right? And I think it’s not unusual in communities, for there to be families, and I’m sure we have listeners who were like, you know, they’re gonna drink anyway. I would rather they do it, where I can keep an eye on things, right, where I have some sense of control. Okay, so from the pure safety standpoint, sure, maybe, right. If you’re aware of what’s happening, and you take all the kids keys, and you’re, you know, checking kids, you know, if you know for sure, like, I mean, I’m not saying that an adult supervision of this doesn’t make it more safe. Potentially, that could happen. Okay, but there’s two problems with that. One is, you could still get in trouble for serving underage minors, you’re not supposed to serve other people’s underage kids like that is not a legal thing to do. So that’s one problem. The other problem is I think the thing that keeps teenagers safest in the whole world is their ability to blame their good behavior on their parents. And so what I mean by that is like say, Reena, you and I are out partying, and we’re teenagers. And you’re like Lisa, here, smoke a ton of weed, I should be able to say, Reena, I totally would smoke weed with you. But like my parents, they are so rigid. They’re so strict, they’re gonna come down on me like a ton of bricks, if they, you know, get the sense. I’ve done this or they test my pee or whatever. It does not work for me to say that to you. If you can say, What are you talking about your parents hosted last weekend, your parents are cool. They’re really fun. They’re, they’re, you know, they’re open to this kind of stuff. So I’m not saying that it can’t work. But I think there are a lot of complications to serving, even when you’re there. I think there’s a lot of complications. And, you know, it’s interesting to like, get into these things where there’s really like What should parents do? And my view on it is, parents have to make their own choices. They know themselves, they know their kids, our job arena is just to make sure people really understand the landscape of what those choices set them up for, for better or for worse.

Reena Ninan
I want to ask you though this mom clearly doesn’t it just you can get a sense doesn’t really trust her side on this and is asking for your help on this. But what if the reverse is true that you actually have a good kid you trust the kid? Is it okay that to leave him home alone? And if maybe the third party you trust?

Lisa Damour
Okay, so this I mean, this is key, right? This is critically important question. And you know, this kid, probably he’s a great kid, I’m sure. But he also might be looking for some fun, because he’s a teenager, and that is their jobs. So again, parents know their kids, they may be like, You know what, I know my kid. If they have kids over, they’re going to be playing Dungeons and Dragons and drinking like too much soda, right? Like, that’s as bad as it can get like, if you know your kid, you know, your kid, like, I’m not gonna say there’s no way this can work. But one of the things I want to put back on the table is something we’ve talked about before, which is hot and cold reasoning, which is the two different mental systems that teenagers uniquely have. So cold reasoning is good logical reasoning, not informed by social or emotional pressures. So even with this kid, let’s say in this in this letter, the mom might be like, dude, here are the laws like, here’s how bad this can be like, here’s how out of control this can be. And the kid might be like, Oh, my goodness, I had no idea. Do not worry. It will be a monastery at the house while you’re gone. Like there’s nothing for you to worry about. He may mean it. He may be telling the God’s honest truth in that moment, because he is in the cold light of day having a rational conversation with a parent. Now, teenagers are subject to what we call heart reasoning, which is that their reasoning changes when they get around their friends. So that same kid or some other kid who really is a trustworthy kid, most of the time could having sworn up and down there having nobody over. You leave town. It’s Saturday night, and when friends like Oh, come on, like a couple of us can come over right? Can’t we and the kids like Yeah, couples can come over, right? And then you know how it is right? The next thing you know, they might, you know, kid might show up with booze, right? And then the poor kid who’s hosting is like, oh, man, like, what am I gonna do like kick them out, because my parents aren’t here. And I promise like, again, now you’ve got the social and emotional pressures. You know, peer pressure, I guess, is basically the best way to describe it. Kids will do different things and what they swear to you up and down under the cold conditioning reasons. So even if you trust your kid, or even if you trust the conversation you’re having with your kid, don’t thank all of your honestly, legal freedom on that, like, there’s so much at stake here that you want to be very, very cautious.

Reena Ninan
So what I’m hearing from you is no idea of a leave your kid, whether good or bad, or responsible or not responsible home alone for a long weekend, and leaving the door open to potentially a party or activity that could really get you in trouble is not a good idea.

Lisa Damour
It’s really, really risky. This is a really risky proposition. Because of the variables involved. There’s a legal variables involved. There’s how teenagers think and reason involved. There’s also the factoring. I mean, pre internet, do you remember being a party that got out of control? I went to parties that got out of control.

Reena Ninan
Yes, of course. Of course. Yeah. That was pre-internet. But yeah, you’re right. I never thought of that. There was no social media documenting the party, right?

Lisa Damour
Or transmitting fact that there was a party, right? I mean, we were able to determine that by like, weird ground. For you know, groundwork alone with like, literally landline phones, we could still find out where parties were and things get get out of control. So you know, you take that capacity of adolescence, which we had you marry that with the internet and the ability to post about where parties are, things can get out of control very fast.

Reena Ninan
I hadn’t even thought of that. So is it better than to, you know, some a lot of parents actually, I think, often think it’s better to have them maybe drinking or doing stuff at your house, in your basement, rather than them driving around and partying from place to place. Do you agree with that logic?

Lisa Damour
So when it comes to other people’s kids, no, right? I mean, just like, I’m gonna say, I don’t think we should be serving other people’s kids. Right? I think, you know, the law says we shouldn’t, in your home, outside your home, in your holiday, shouldn’t do it outside of your home. Actually, wherever you are, they’re responsible. But I think other people’s kids are other people’s kids. And there’s both legal and, you know, relational realities. Now, there’s a question about whether you should serve your own kid in your home. So we’re not talking party situation, we’re talking dinner with your family and your kids are minor. There are things to be thinking about with us. So one thing that’s sort of worth noting, and I think this has come up before, but I’m glad we kind of circle back on the same thing, sometimes from different perspectives. In many states, Ohio, where I am included, it is legal to serve your own minor in your home. So the law makes a distinction between you can’t serve other people’s minors, but you can serve your own minor in your home. And so you know, if your kids like super curious about alcohol, and you know, you’re like they’re trying it no matter what we do, so I’d rather they do it here. The law in your state may be on your side, okay. Now, of course, even if it’s not on your side, you still can probably get away with serving your own child without getting caught. But if the law articulates that, like it does here, where I am in Ohio, one thing parents might do is take advantage of that to talk with kids about the context in which drinking happens. And I think this gets back to this big big party thing, right? Alcohol on its own. And I’m going to put an asterisk on this and come back to it because there’s something for teenagers we have to say, alcohol on its own is not necessarily all that dangerous, right? I mean, like I have a glass of wine, you know, you have a glass of wine like it’s it’s part of reasonable adult life. Alcohol gets really dangerous in very particular contexts, parties with lots of kids and no parents around parties, like some random place where your kid has gone, you know, I mean, like, that’s the issue. So if your laws articulate that you can have, you can serve your own kid, you can say what the law recognizes is context. The law is here married to safety. The law recognizes if we are serving you, a separate tool wine at dinner. Safety is not an issue. The law also recognizes you can’t be doing this other places. So it’s it’s not unreasonable to work in that space if you want to. Here’s the asterisk: Some data show that If kids try alcohol, as teenagers, it increases the likelihood they will have a substance use problem down the line.

Reena Ninan
Okay, this is where, you know, I spent a lot of time abroad covering, you know, as a foreign correspondent and one thing I admired about the Europeans, they their kids are exposed to having a glass of wine when they’re 15 or 16. It’s not a big deal. And I feel like we have all these laws, and I know there to help. But sometimes if you’re telling kids No, no, no, no, no. And you make it so taboo. It doesn’t it like up the game, then for them to think that that I just, I don’t know, I get so frustrated, like, isn’t a little bit exposure better than suddenly cutting them loose at 21. And they go wild in college?

Lisa Damour
I think your reasoning a lot of parents share. And I’m not saying that it can’t work, right. I mean, I think that a lot of parents have the experience. And certainly this is actually how I was raised where my parents were like, Yeah, we have a little wine and I had a little wine. And then it was demystified. And I got to college. And I was like, Yeah, whatever, right? I mean, so I think a lot of people have in real life experience of that being a very viable way to teach about alcohol. Again, back to the like, we’re not here to tell you how to raise your kids. But we are here to tell you the data so you can make your own choices. The thing that we think may happen for some kids is Reena, you know, how teenagers experience things really intensely, like both joys and also, you know, miseries, like it’s all on steroids for them. The concern is that for some kids, they’re going to like really like how it feels right? That that that the way alcohol feels is going to be amplified by nature of them being a teenager. And that kind of amped up pleasurable experience of it can lay the groundwork for them having trouble with alcohol down the line. And the theory being, if you can get them out of that window, when their feelings are on steroids. It reduces the likelihood that they’ll like love, love, love it, they’ll just like it, and then they’re theoretically safer. So those are the data. I want people to have the data, but again, families get to make their own choices.

Reena Ninan
You know, maybe the part of my upbringing was my parents were not big drinkers. They didn’t weren’t just weren’t big drinkers. But I guess, you know, is there ever in this situation parameters? That might be okay, I know I keep coming back to it. Because it’s sort of the real world, you know, the kids are going to be exposed to it, you want to do the right thing? But I do. I’d rather have my kids exposed to it. When I’m around, we can talk about it. And it’s not a big deal. Is my parenting style wrong in trying to do that? Now, based on what you said about, you know…

Lisa Damour
Here’s the thing, there’s very few, there’s very little in parenting, I will say is wrong. I mean, there’s abusive stuff. There’s, you know, out of control stuff, there’s neglect, right? I mean, those were wrong. So much parenting, there’s a million ways to get it, right. There’s a million ways and those ways are driven by who we are, who our kids are, what the parameters are around us with the culture, we’re raising them in, you know, so it’s, um, I think one of the joys of being a psychologist, and I’ve said this before, is like you’re kind of anthropological, right? You’re not usually coming in with heavy judgment. Yeah. I want people to know the research. I want people to know what we know. But they also know their kids better than than anyone else.

Reena Ninan
What would you say, Lisa? What should parents do if they know that there are other parents who are hosting parties, or allowing these parties to happen in their absence, you don’t want to be the ostracized, ostracized kid is not allowed to go. So what do you tell your kid in that instance?

Lisa Damour
I think in that instance, like so much in parenting teenagers around risk behavior, you focus on safety, you just make it about safety. And you just say, like, look, those parties make me so anxious, because they are fundamentally so likely to be unsafe, right? That when booze is involved, things get out of control so quickly, and Reena, like this is the problem with having practiced as long as I have, like, everything’s okay until it’s suddenly 100% Not okay. And it happens fast, and it’s hard to control. And so I would just really hammer on that as a parent, like, you know, safety means more than anything else. You being at a big party where there’s no one there and we’re, you know, drinking is happening and it’s out of control, like, not safe, not safe or potentially could be out of control.

Reena Ninan
So I’m going to come back to this letter as we wrap up. What do you think this parent should do? They’re going away. Kid seems to be planning something. If they can’t find anyone else to help. What do they do?

Lisa Damour
What do they do? Okay. This is where you call in every favor you’ve got so I think you don’t, you know, again, maybe some kids can be trusted 100% I don’t think you put this kid in position where hot reasoning could take over. So I think you say we’re going over Way, and we’re gonna send you to your grandparents for the weekend, right? Or we’re going away and we’re hiring this, you know, trusted, cranky old babysitter of yours, she’s gonna come stay for the weekend like that’s happening, or we’re going away. And maybe you call around to your network of families and you say, I need my kid to come stay with you guys for the weekend.

Reena Ninan
So what I’m hearing is: Do not leave them alone is what I’m hearing.

Lisa Damour
No, I just wouldn’t I mean, if you have any reason to be the least bit anxious, and this moms or mind or is already going there, create conditions where the kid does not have to hold off their peers by themselves, right? Like, he may have already told friends, like, the parents are gonna be way create conditions where he can say, yeah, they’re away. And guess where I am? Stuck in the suburban, whatever that I didn’t mean to be in, right, you know, like, don’t put it so that your kid has to hold off their peers. Like it just it’s, um, it’s a setup. I wouldn’t put a kid in that position.

Reena Ninan
Don’t put it on them. All right. Anything else? Lisa, as we wrap up that you think document There’s me there’s so much here, but I think what you skipped what scared me the most about this episode was the legal ramifications that I was completely unaware of thinking that I was doing the right thing by having somebody contained in my home.

Lisa Damour
I think you’re not alone in that. And it’s interesting. Reena, you know, practiced a long time now. And my experience is I am well into my third decade of practicing is that I am more relaxed about most things, right? And like, I’ve seen that play out, it’s going to be alright. And then I’m also more on the ceiling about particular things like things that I’ve watched evolve over time where I’m like, Okay, that one that is 100% on fire that needs to be handled. Right. So this is in the “on fire” category, leaving a kid who’s already curious about when you guys coming back? And how long will you be gone home?

Reena Ninan
I wouldn’t. God I want to have your “on fire” list now. I want to know all those things that once they happen. Snowbird. Well, thank you, my friend, I just think there’s so much here that I didn’t realize that I’m kind of shocked by but I appreciate you laying it out so beautifully. What do you have for us for Parenting to Go?

Lisa Damour
I think I just want to underscore something that threaded through this whole episode, which is just just it’s always about safety. Right? It’s not about the laws. It’s not about the morals. I mean, the laws are terrifying in this case. But you know, kids would be like, I know, lots of kids who’ve had parties and you know, their parents are still free citizens, like, you know, I mean, you can’t always convince kids on the laws. safety, safety is your best friend. So when we’re talking with teenagers about risky behavior, whatever the risky behavior is, the reason we don’t want to do it is not safe. And I love that language of saying to them, your safety means more to me than anything in the whole wide world. I’m not compromising it. We don’t negotiate about safety. This is unsafe, it’s a no go. And just really focusing on safety.

Reena Ninan
And that you find has resonated with teens?

Lisa Damour
It does because it’s a neutral. It’s neutral, right? It’s not well, this is my opinion, or this is what the laws in our state say, right? It’s safety, your safety, right? I mean, it’s it’s how we’ve always raised our kids, where we put safety first, and then everything comes after that.

Reena Ninan
Well said, very well said. So Lisa, I am so excited about next week’s episode, and the guest we’re gonna have on next week in their new book, tell us about it.

Lisa Damour
I’m excited to we have Dr. Cara Natterson and Vanessa Bennett coming on. They have a brand new book called “This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained.” And they have so much wisdom in this book and so much wisdom between them. We’ve had Dr. Natterson on in the past many episodes ago to answer some medical questions for us. But they have this phenomenal, phenomenal new book about puberty coming out, and we get to be with them on their publication day.

Reena Ninan
So looking forward to this I have so many questions. There’s a lot that people don’t talk about, that you don’t know or don’t know about in puberty that I’m hoping they’re going to be able to, I know that we’ll be able to turn around and explain. So I’ll see you next week.

Lisa Damour
See you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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