How Late Should I Let My Teenager Stay Out? Setting a Curfew

Girl with alarm clock

Girl holding alarm clockBy Samurai Mom

I always wondered if I would be a mom like the ones in the movies who peered through lace curtains, anxiously waiting, forever waiting for that overgrown kid to walk in the door. Would he or she make curfew?

I won’t keep you in suspense. I am that kind of parent, minus the lace curtains. And it ain’t easy to keep your cool when your teen is out and about at night.

How late should I let my teenager stay out? The effective curfew for your teen is the one that reflects their chronological age, their maturity and the level of trust that they’ve earned.

  • Reflect on your teen’s respect for family rules.
  • Evaluate the level of trust that you have in your teen.
  • Consider the activities and the group of friends involved.
  • Build in expectations for unforeseen circumstances.
  • Enforce consequences consistently.
  • Reevaluate the curfew as a living agreement.
Chronological Age vs. Maturity

Parents often seek a hard and fast curfew recommendation by age level. It’s more complicated when you consider that all teens are different and can handle different levels of responsibility at varying ages. As a middle school teacher, I’ve known eighth graders who would be better candidates for a later curfew than older students who have moved on to high school. It defies logic, really, when we consider that the frontal cortex, that area of the brain responsible for rational judgment continues to grow until the mid-twenties. You’d predict that a 10th grader should be handling potentially risky situations far more responsibly than an 8th grader. To be fair, they generally do, but every year of a teen’s life brings more complex experiences that they may be unprepared to navigate.

In setting a curfew,  consider the whole picture of a teen’s environment, their track record as well as how well they’re handling what’s already on their plate.

Let’s get a suggested checklist from the American Academy of Pediatrics out of the way so that you can compare the guidelines to your own situation:

Age School Nights Weekend Nights
12-13 7:00-8:00 9:00-10:00
14 – 16 8:00 – 9:00 10:00-11:00
17+ 10:00-11:00 Negotiable with teen

As you can see, not even this is set in stone.There’s a range in the guidelines that leave room for the level of maturity in your teen.

Your Community: Laws and Parental Norms

As you set a curfew, a little research will help you avoid running afoul of local laws. Some communities have curfew ordinances that are set by state or local governments. These laws enable police to detain any unaccompanied minor teen (under 18) found in public between certain hours, often between 11:00 pm-6:00 am unless going to/from work, a school-sponsored activity or in an emergency.

The curfew question has a layer that’s dictated by your teen’s mode of transportation, too. New drivers are often restricted by states to drive during certain hours. In our state, for example, 16- and 17-year-old drivers are prohibited from driving from 11:00 pm to 5:00 am unless the “.. teen is traveling for employment, school, religious activities, medical necessity, or if the individual is an assigned driver in the safe ride program.”

Taking an informal survey other parents with teens in your community can give you a rough idea of a time range that they have set for curfews. It’s helpful to have this frame of reference before you talk with your teen about the curfew, because you can already predict that your teen will have a strong desire to be bound by similar times as his or her friends. To be clear, while you should take into account the average curfew in your teen’s friend group to give you a range, every teen will handle responsibility differently.

Set the expectations early in your discussion that curfew time will depend on these other factors and that your teen will have input through his or her actions. The more responsible the behavior over time, the more potential for an extended curfew.

  1. The Track Record: Your Teen’s Respect for Family Rules and Commitments

You know your teen best, so take a clear and compassionate look at your teen’s track record. Have they proven their consistency in following through on responsibilities and respecting family rules? This can include fulfilling small and larger commitments independently like these:

Grades – Not necessarily straight A’s, but does your teen demonstrate consistent effort?

Homework – turning in homework on time, done according to directions

Telling the truth and admitting mistakes – gives you an accurate picture of your teen’s behavior when unsupervised

Punctuality – is your teen generally on time for school and other commitments?

Regular attendance for sports practices, lessons, meetings, rehearsals

Care for others – does your teen care for younger siblings and/or pets in a way that demonstrates responsibility?

2. Evaluate the level of trust that you and your teen have built together (see 6 Ways to Build Trust in Your Teen)

Trust is the pivotal issue in establishing a curfew that both you and your teen can live with. Have a frank conversation about the ways trust is gained and lost and the role that the curfew will play in that process. Emphasize to your teen that responsible, trust-building behavior leads to more leeway in curfew and independent activities.

3. Consider the Context – Activities and Friend Group (See Dating has Changed: New Rules for Teens)

A curfew encompasses more than just a number on a clock. Consider the types of activities that your teen will be engaging in and the group of friends involved. Get to know your kids’ friends and their parents.

At a minimum, parents should know where a teen is headed that evening, who he or she is expecting to travel with and when they expect to arrive home. Expectations of communication should be spelled out ahead of time – will your teen text you or call you periodically during the evening?

You may want to extend a curfew for special occasions like a prom.

4. Build in expectations for unforeseen circumstances.

Mother looking off to horizon with arms around two sons.Flat tires, lost phones or other snags in an evening out will happen occasionally. How do you expect your teen to handle them? Spelling out an agreement ahead of time will help save you needless worry if your teen is unavoidably late for curfew. It will also give your teen a blueprint to follow and reduce their anxiety as they respond to the problem.

Some parents set plans in place to allow teens a guaranteed “out” if an experience with friends feels uncomfortable. For example, Burt Fulks devised a sequence of events designed to get his teens out of any uncomfortable peer situation without losing face. The trigger? The letter X sent by text to any member of the family. His X Plan also – and this is important – hinges on the assurance by mom and dad that no questions will be asked.

5. As part of the curfew agreement, your teen should know ahead of time the consequences of arriving home late for curfew.*  

Here are some possible consequences:

  • For every ten minutes late for curfew, your teen needs to come home ten minutes early for the next time.
  • Teen loses permission to go out the following week.
  • Teen loses access to the car for a weekend.
  • Repeated lateness rolls back the hour of curfew for a couple of weeks.

*A note: Having these discussions in the heat of a late arrival will rarely go well. Our advice? Welcome your kids home, give thanks that they’re safe. In the morning, calmly enforce the consequences.  See also: How Can I Talk With My Teen?

6. Curfews Should be Flexible as Your Teen Grows

A curfew should be considered a living agreement between you and your teen, always under review as your teen builds trust or loses trust. If a teen is able to impact the extension of curfew and accompanying trust through responsible behavior, there is a strong motivation for doing just that.

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