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3 Ways to Set a Curfew for Teens and Stick to It

A short while before curfew last Saturday night, Carol, a Cleveland mom of two teenage girls, received a text message from her youngest daughter, Sarah, asking if she could stay at the party just a little later.

But Sarah didn’t exactly specify what a “little later” meant.

And, in fact, her entire text message read something like: “hi. i don’t think this party will end at 11 so i’ll tell u when to come.”

Carol paused briefly before writing back: “I want you home by 11:00 p.m. so we can go to bed.”

The response felt totally fine—and completely justified—when Carol typed it. But the second she put down the phone, the panic set in.

Am I being unreasonable? Oh my god, I’m totally being unreasonable. What if she’s the only one who has to leave early? Maybe I should text her back.

The internal chatter continued the entire drive to her daughter’s friend’s house.

Curfews Are Complicated.

On one hand, they provide needed structure.

Simply put, curfews are one of the structural requirements of family life. They give parents a sense of security and an assurance that their adolescent “will, at some agreed-upon point, re-emerge from the black hole of the night,” says Joani Geltman, a parenting coach and author of A Survival Guide to Parenting Teens. They give teens boundaries and a schedule for the night.

On the other hand, they lead to conflict.

Curfews for teens also cause headaches. Disagreements over curfews are one of the most common causes of friction between parents and teens. As psychologist and author Dr. Carl Pickhardt explains, “An adolescent’s role is to push for all the freedom they can get, and a parent’s responsibility is to restrain that push.”

Arguments over curfews are seldom really about sleep. Mostly, they are veiled conversations about freedom, independence, accountability, and safety. Kids in elementary school respond well to authoritative rules. Not so much teenagers. “At this stage, parents cannot make their kids stop doing something without their cooperation,” says Pickhardt. This change in balance and power leaves parents feeling stressed—and can result in testy conversations.

Pickhardt believes this is a good thing. “Parents tell me all the time, ‘My kid is defiant. They argue and push back on everything.’ What I try to tell them is that it’s not truly defiance. The kid who shows no respect is the kid who simply ignores you. This arguing is a gift. They are sharing information about what matters to them.”

3 Ways to make curfews work for you:

1. Get input from your teen.

Experts agree the key to successful curfews for teenagers is involving them early in the discussion. “Start by saying, ‘What time do you think you should be home?’” says Geltman, who claims she’s never had a teen respond with “3:00 a.m.” Once you both agree to a curfew time, Geltman suggests you also have your teen recommend a punishment for breaking it. “Kids are much harder on themselves than parents often think,” Geltman says.

2. Do not let your teen manipulate you.

“Technology can make curfew meaningless today,” says Geltman. “Parents think, ‘Well, he called and checked in with me, so it’s okay if he stays out another half an hour.’ But through leniency, your teen is really learning the art of manipulation.”

3. Stay firm and consistent.

It’s important, once you set a curfew, to keep firm on it. Curfews are meant to provide valuable time management and accountability lessons. “The job of parents is to teach their children sufficient self-management skills so they are able to functionally take care of themselves when they leave home,” says Pickhardt.

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This is in fact what Carol’s husband reinforced to Carol right before she left to pick up Sarah. And as she pulled up to her daughter’s friend’s house, she was quite pleased to see a line of other mothers there, waiting, as well. Carol was careful not to mention this fact to Sarah when she slid in the car, though. One other important thing she’d learned about motherhood was when to let things go.

Rebecca Meiser

Rebecca Meiser is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio, and frequent contributor to Your Teen.