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My daughter sneaked out at night to meet pals

If teen’s nighttime escapade appears to be a one-time event, says Dr. Ruth Peters, reaction should be firm but not too severe.

Q:  Last Saturday my 14-year-old daughter left her bedroom through the window and met some of her friends during the night.  I found out because I got up in the middle of the night and checked to see if she had turned out the light in her bedroom, since she sometimes falls asleep watching TV or reading a book.  When I opened the door her bed was empty and the screen was off of the window. 

To my knowledge, this is the first time that she’s done this.  Thankfully, she came home safely at 4:30 in the morning, and I was waiting for her when she returned.  She explained that this was the first time she had sneaked out and that she had met up with a few girlfriends and they were “just sitting around and talking.” 

I grounded her from her friend and activities for two weeks.  At first she was very angry with me, but she has calmed down and appears to be remorseful about her behavior.  I really don’t want this behavior to continue and hope that I have made an impression upon her.  Did I handle this correctly and what should I do if it happens again?

A: Many children would never consider sneaking out at night — they are just not into that type of behavior and don’t hang around with kids who are.  However, it’s not unusual for teens to consider this behavior, and many will do it once in their adolescent careers to experience the excitement of engaging in a clandestine activity.

Overall, I think you handled the situation well. It’s important for you to react, but to not overreact.  If your daughter is basically a reasonable child who generally follows your guidelines and rules, the two-week restriction placed upon her will most likely do the trick.  If you haven’t done so already, you should also engage her in a discussion of the danger of being on the streets at night — it may open her eyes further to some consequences she hadn’t considered and she may decide that sneaking out isn’t worth it. 

In general, let her know that you are disappointed in this specific behavior and expect that it will not happen again.  Tell her that you have not lost your trust in her because you feel that this was a one-time issue, and that you are confident in her ability to respect the house rules and to behave appropriately.

However, if this occurs again or other behaviors develop suggesting that she’s either testing your ability to control her or is more concerned about pleasing her peers than working within family rules, you may have to take more drastic steps.  Alarm systems not only help to keep intruders out, but they also can keep kids in at night especially if you have the digital code type and your child knows only the daytime code and not the nighttime one.  Also, negative consequences for consistent breaking of family rules can be beefed up, including longer periods of restriction and the taking-away of privileges.  Even the most rebellious and sneaky of teens will be concerned with loss of freedom and access to their friends, and they often decide to abide by the rules in order to regain their social life.

If your child sneaks out again, have a heart-to-heart talk with her about mutual respect.  Let her know that breaking house rules may seem unimportant to her, especially if she feels some of the rules are not necessary.  If you can compromise and allow her greater freedoms, this may decrease the need for her to break rules.  For example, she may be satisfied with a later curfew and not feel the need to sneak out.  Let her know that her future freedoms and opportunities depend upon her current behavior.  If you can’t believe that she is going to be where she says she will, then access to the car in the future may have to be restricted.  Not only will she resent being treated like a child when you have to check up on her, but so will you.  Let her know that you would like to be able to trust her so that you can relax and allow her privileges and freedoms as she goes through adolescence.  It will be a lot more fun for both of you if she can see that you’re willing to compromise and allow her to explore her world, but only if you can trust that she is honest with you and uses good judgment in her behavior.

Finally, take a look at your family rules.  Are you being too restrictive?  Often kids will agree to stay within the rules if they feel that you are willing to compromise and negotiate. Allowing her to choose her friends, perhaps extending her curfew under certain circumstances, or agreeing to reasonable activities may make her feel that she doesn’t need to sneak behind your back in order to have a “normal” social life.  If she can see that the more up front she is with you, and that the more information she provides leads to greater freedoms, it will most likely make sense to your daughter and she’ll play by the rules.

Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” Her most recent book is "Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting" (, 2002).  She is also the consultant psychologist for the Family Program at the Pritikin Longevity Center, a nutrition and exercise facility in Aventura, Florida. For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright ©2004 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.