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Balancing Act: Teens alone after school

Recently, a good friend's had a family crisis that forced him to rethink his work situation. His teenage daughter was home alone and invited friends over.

The friends brought friends. Before long valuables were missing. Filing a police report only made the situation worse and threatened the daughter's safety.

Fortunately, my friend was able to change to the night shift, allowing him to be home with his daughter in the afternoons.

Troubled teens cut across all income levels and put a unique kind of stress on working parents. Contrary to what most people believe, the younger years are not the most difficult for many working parents. Often, teen concerns have parents rethinking their work schedules, forging different career paths and often, paying the price for having teens home unsupervised.

Employers are affected, too.

"If you are worried about what they are doing or who they are with, you are not as productive," says Hialeah parent Sandra Camacho. "Even if you trust them, teens get influenced easily."

The situation is difficult on many levels: Teens don't want baby-sitters, and many parents don't want to spend big bucks on supervision. For some, the easy answer becomes leaving them home alone until mom or dad get off work.

Unfortunately, many discover that's where the trouble starts.

Besides the obvious risks -- drugs, sex, violence and gangs -- there now is the real threat of video game addiction and the lure of Internet chat rooms. Researchers found half of offenses committed by teens happen during the daylight hours, not after dark.

"A huge part of the message is parents need to be hands-on in the afternoons during the teenage years," says Peggy Sapp, CEO of Informed Families, a Miami nonprofit. "It's easy for parents to think their teen is more mature than they are."

Many parents also feel ashamed to talk with co-workers or bosses about teen problems. Sapp says employers often are empathetic for parents with babies and their struggles with day care, "but a baggy pants teen with purple hair who is caught with drugs or failing school'' doesn't get the same support.

For a year, Camacho spent her afternoons at work stressing about her 15-year-old daughter being home alone. "I would call five or six times," she says. The two began to clash when Camacho continually begged her to get involved in after-school programs instead of sleeping all afternoon or chatting online.

Camacho says friends eventually coaxed her daughter to sign up for track, which meets after school, five days a week. "It's been huge blessing."

Quality after-school programs at high schools or in the community are viewed as the best way to decrease teen crime, increase safety and reduce teen pregnancy. Some of the better programs teach job skills and community service. Yet, middle and high school students now experience the greatest unmet need for after-school programs. It's the reason Jodi Grant, executive director of the national Afterschool Alliance, says she's working hard to fight President Bush's proposed $300 million cutbacks for after school programs. With millions of kids unsupervised after school, funding for these programs should go up, not down, she insists.

"We've got a double-edged sword," Grant says. "There are not enough programs, and not a lot of parents understand the potential."

Ileana Reyes understands. A single mom, Reyes forces her 14-year-old son, Dominick, to sign up for after-school sports programs at his Miami Lakes middle school. "I know he needs structure after school."

She has watched his friends at home unsupervised, playing video games all afternoon and seeing their grades plummet. "I tell him you pick a sport and we just go from one season to the next."

But sometimes, even after-school programs aren't enough when work schedules clash with home life. A few years ago, a job promotion took Debbie, a South Florida accountant, away from her home until well past dinner time. The longer hours meant her teenage son would come home after football practice and have a few hours without adult supervision. He soon become defiant and began using drugs.

"I felt I had no choice. I had to change jobs to be home earlier, even if it meant less money."

Jobs after school and community service are other options. One parent I spoke with says her teenage daughter not only stayed out of trouble but learned compassion and responsibility from volunteering after school at a hospital.

Sharon Gordon, a guidance counselor at Miami Norland Senior High, says her school has a career specialist on campus who encourages students to sign up for clubs and work programs.

"There is a positive correlation between students being involved in after school activities and academic success," Gordon says.

Priscilla Little, associate director of the Harvard Family Research Project and parent of teenage daughters, offers this advice: "The most powerful way to get your teen into an after-school program is start the habit early, in middle school," she says.

But if it is too late, and your teen spends after-school hours unsupervised, check in often. "Even if there's a notion of supervision," she says, "the likelihood of mischief goes down."

Tips for balancing work and raising teens:

• Get your teen involved in an after-school club, mentoring or sports program at their school or in the community. Ask about adult supervision.

• Look for programs that support their interests and hobbies.

• Band together with parents of their friends and form an after-school library study group.

• If your teen is home alone, check in frequently and limit computer and phone use.

• Encourage your teen to volunteer in the community for required service hours.

• Consider your teen getting a job working up to 20 hours per week.

Web sites for after-school programs in Broward and Miami-Dade counties:

Florida After School Alliance

Florida Afterschool Network

YWCA-Miami YES program


National AfterSchool Association