Effective Ways to Handle a Teenager Who Sneaks Out at Night

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS

 

Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

I’m Dr Lucy Russell, child clinical psychologist. In this article we will take a deep dive into how to handle a teenager sneaking out.

Two overarching principles are:

  1. Connection over correction.
  2. Safety over independence.

What do you need to do to keep your teenager safe?

How can you get mutual trust back in your relationship?

And how can you set safe and secure boundaries your teen will stick to?

Is Sneaking Out Normal?

Sneaking out at night can be a normal desire in the teenage years as part of growing up and developing independence. However, that doesn’t make it safe or okay.

As a parent of a teen you’ll know that defying you is, to some extent, normal.

They’re trying to step out into the world and move away from you.

You want this too, but you also want to keep them close by and safe. There is going to be tension and disagreement about where the boundaries lie sometimes.

close up of happy teen girl

Sneaking Out: Look For The Underlying Reasons

For a lot of teens, sneaky behavior is not about defying you but about expressing themselves or getting something they really want.

They simply have different priorities.

It doesn’t mean their priorities are correct.

In the teen years your child may or may not have a realistic view of safe and unsafe behaviours. Sneaking out in the middle of the night or after dark may seem exciting and exhilarating.

The reward centre of the brain – with an area called the nucleus accumbens at its core – is seeking “hits” of dopamine. The teenage brain’s pleasure centre seeks rewards more than the same area in adult brains. This can affect their ability to judge risks accurately.

Adjust Your Perspective

So, we have seen that your teen may has a different brain and different priorities.

How do you reconcile this with keeping them safe and putting effective boundaries in place?

The only way to bridge this gap is to stop labeling “bad behavior” and get alongside your teen.

Understand why they are sneaking out or engaging in other risky behaviours. Then build the connection so you can work together.

teenage boy being comforted by his mother

I know, this is easier said than done.

The worst thing is the worry that your child puts you through, seemingly unaware or uncaring, caught up in their own bubble.

But let’s break it down and think about what’s happening for your child and what needs to change. We will think about some of the issues teens and their parents face in their relationship and practical steps to improve communication and trust between you and your teen.

Safety and the Dangers of Sneaking out at Night

Teenagers vary massively in their development. One fifteen year-old, for example, might be street-wise and savvy, whereas another may how no idea about the dangers of sneaking out at night.

To make things even more complicated, within each child their development can be uneven. I usually look at cognitive/intellectual, emotional, social and physical development.

Teens with an “uneven profile” of development can feel more difficult to parent. Here are some examples:

Adam, 13 year old boy, is advanced in his physical development. He looks much older than his real age. This leads others to treat him as though he is older.

Adam is allowed to go out with groups of older kids and stay out later than many other boys his age.

However, emotionally and socially he is immature compared with other boys. His keenness to impress other boys hinders his ability to make good choices.

Adam doesn’t have good judgement and he is at risk of harm. He engages in dangerous activities like jumping in front of cars to impress his friends.

Millie, a sixteen year-old girl, is advanced in her cognitive development and physical development.

She looks older than she is.

Millie knows – in theory – about the dangers of unprotected sex and drug use. However, emotionally she feels insecure and is desperate for a boyfriend. To her, the idea of a 16 year old staying out all night with a boy is romantic and exciting.

So, when an older teenager starts a romantic relationship with her, she engages in these risky behaviors as she is scared of being rejected by him.

Reflect on your child’s development in the areas I outlined: physical, cognitive/intellectual, emotional and social?

  • Is there an unevenness?
  • Is your child more developed in one or more areas than in others?
  • Does this mean they may be vulnerable?

There’re a lot to reflect on. The ultimate question is:

Does your child understand how to keep themselves safe?

If the answer to that question is no, then they need you to do this for them with firm boundaries and clear support.

Read on to understand the practical steps involved.

TAKE THE QUIZ!

Age vs Developmental Level

Ignore your child’s actual age.

What is their emotional age?

Ignore whatever freedoms or restrictions their friends have. Their friends may be more (or less) able to keep themselves safe.

It may feel deeply unfair to young people if a friend has a later curfew than them. It’s really important that you show empathy with this. Life can be unfair, but at the same time, your ultimate role as a parent is to keep your child safe.

In order to set boundaries which your child is willing to accept, first you may need to spend a significant amount of time working on trust.

Building Trust

Trust is an essential part of a healthy relationship between parent and child.

Without trust, your child will not respect the boundaries and rules you set. They will either openly or secretly flout the boundaries.

Sneaking out is one way they may show you they don’t trust or respect your rules.

Is there a lack of trust and respect in your relationship? If you teenager is sneaking out without your consent, the answer is almost certainly yes.

So How Can You Build Your Relationship?

The first step is to make some no-pressure connections. Five or ten minutes where you are interested in what they are doing or what they have to say.

Good relationships depend on these micro-connections.

You will learn little snippets of information which will help you to understand and respect your child’s world view.

Who are their friends?

What are their values?

What is important to them right now, and why?

dad and son arms round each other

If you feel that you have lost (or never had) this kind of connection with your child, don’t feel bad. Life is busy and hectic, and some teens are very private.

You are only human.

But the best time to take action to fix it is right now.

The best thing about these “micro moments” of connection is that they are easy to do.

For example, next time your teenager comes into the kitchen, have a chat. Perhaps offer them a hot drink or ask them a (not too demanding) question about the video game they have been playing.

Next time you are in the car together, chat to them in a non-judgmental way about a (not too demanding) topic, like what’s going on in the news. You’ll learn about their values.

Micro-moments don’t need to involve words. You could put their favourite chocolate bar on their desk or pour them a warm bath when they’re tired and stressed.

Re-Define Boundaries to Prevent Your Teen Sneaking Out

What are your boundaries like at home? Are you happy that your house rules keep everyone safe?

It’s vital to have family rules which serve the whole family.

Boundaries should keep family members safe from immediate harm (for example you may have a rule that “we do not cause physical harm to others”). But your boundaries also they need to protect everyone’s longer-term wellbeing.

For instance, you may have boundaries around the use of your child’s electronic devices and cell phone.

The best ways for everyone to be clear about the family rules and boundaries are:

  1. Discuss them and set them as a family.
  2. Make them visual.

Visual posters of family rules are a good way to ensure your child understands the rules.

For example, if your teenager is sneaking out at night, you may assume they know that this isn’t allowed.

But are they really clear on this?

Do they know exactly when they should be at home?

teenager having serious discussion with parents

If a rule is broken then it is important to consider if you should give them a related consequence.

But don’t just put in a consequence to punish your child.

This will only cause further mutual mistrust and disrespect.

Think about the intention behind the consequence. What do you want your child to learn or reflect on? Or perhaps you need to put the consequence in place to keep them safe?

For example, a fifteen year-old teenager sneaks out to be with their boyfriend on Friday night. Their parent can’t be sure whether they had unprotected sex, or if they walked the streets alone to get home. The natural consequence might be that the parent doesn’t allow the child to go to a party the next night.

It’s not about punishment. The parent can’t be sure their teen will stay safe, and needs time to re-define the boundaries with them.

Immediate Safety: When Your Teen is Sneaking Out at Night

It takes time to build the trusting relationship and mutual respect to ensure your teen respects your boundaries.

In the meantime, what should you do if your child’s immediate safety is at risk?

First of all, put your feelings aside. You may feel stressed, frustrated, disrespected and much more besides. Try to take these feelings out of the equation for the moment, so you can focus all your energy on your child’s safety. This means you can respond to your child’s needs, rather than react to your own feelings.

Teenagers may push the boundaries, but this does not mean they don’t want to feel safe as well. They want to know where the boundaries are. Often, they want you to push back. This makes them feel safe. They know you’ve got their back.

Teenagers may push the boundaries, but this does not mean they don’t want to feel safe as well. They want to know where the boundaries are. Often, they want you to push back. This makes them feel safe. They know you’ve got their back.

In essence, don’t be afraid to stay firm.

If your teenager is sneaking out at night they are not safe and something needs to change.

In the very short term consider all measures to keep your child safe, whilst seeking emotional and practical support from family and friends, as well as professional help.

For example, what practical steps can you take, and how can your partner or family and you work as a team?

teenage girl having a serious discussion with her parents

Try to think outside the box.

Here’s an example: If you have a house alarm and live in a two-storey home, perhaps you can set the alarm code once everyone has gone to bed so that it triggers when someone goes downstairs. Strategies like this should be considered an emergency measure and you must always consider fire safety. For example, your teen should know where the front door key is so they can get out in an emergency. Never lock their bedroom door from the outside.

Should I Call the Police If My Child Sneaks Out?

If your teen sneaks out at night and you do not know where they are, do not be afraid to call the police. This is a serious situation and in my experience of working with families over the years, the police are always sympathetic and helpful.

Sometimes, police involvement can be a wake-up call to the potential risk a teenager is putting themselves at.

Case Study: Ellie

Jason and May have a sixteen year old daughter, Ellie.

Ellie is academically bright but she has struggled to form close friendships ever since starting high school. She lacks confidence.

Ellie recently became part of a group at school who go out a lot and experiment with alcohol and drug use.

Sneaking Out

One night, Ellie sneaks out at midnight through an open window to a friend’s house where an all-night party is happening.

Jason and May only find out the next day when they get a text message from the parent of one of Ellie’s old friends. The friend heard about the party on social media as the police were called and there was a drugs raid.

When Jason and May check their security camera footage from last night they can see that Ellie’s escape triggered the motion sensor lights.

Ellie’s phone has an inbuilt tracking device app but May can see that Ellie disabled this when she went out.

She returned early in the morning.

Consequences

Jason and May are in shock and feel that their trust in Ellie has been shattered, especially as she planned to sneak out to the party well in advance.

Ellie is angry with her parents’ reaction. To her, it was just harmless fun. She says she took safety precautions, like avoiding darker streets and alley ways.

May and Jason decide that as an emergency measure they will confiscate Ellie’s cell phone for a couple of says so she cannot arrange any more sneaking out at night.

They also look at their own part in what happened. They realise that:

  • Ellie is emotionally very young for her age and they gave her a lot of trust and freedom, but she isn’t ready for it. She doesn’t have good judgment of safe and unsafe situations.
  • Ellie is highly vulnerable to peer pressure and this puts her at increased risk.
  • Both May’s and Jason’s relationships with Ellie have become more distant over the last few months. They realise they need to re-build that connection.

Removal of Ellie’s cell phone and the shock of her parents’ reactions sinks in over a couple of days and Ellie realises she has misjudged the situation and sneaking out at night made her vulnerable to many dangers.

Actions

  1. Jason, May and Ellie sit down one evening and set some clear house rules. It becomes heated at points, but Ellie agrees she will not sneak out at night in future. The house rules are written down and displayed in the kitchen.
  2. May decides to ring-fence a few hours each week to spend dedicated time with Ellie. They plan to go to the cinema, watch a movie at home or go walking together. One important part of this time involves direct discussion about safe and unsafe situations, so Ellie can be clearer about personal safety. The most important part however, is increasing their connection and trust.
  3. Jason and May ensure Ellie fully understands that if she sneaks out again, they may need to call the police and will need to seek professional help.

Gender and Safety

Some if us may (consciously or subconsciously) be more protective of our teenage daughters than our teenage sons.

However, we should always challenge this assumption.

Teenage boys actually engage in much more risk-taking behaviour than teenage girls.

Why?

One reason is brain development. The teen brain is underdeveloped. Read my article about brain development in children to understand more about this. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that inhibits our impulses. It is the thinking, planning, rationalising part of the brain.

The prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until at least 25 years of age, but possibly as late as 40 years of age!

There is a spurt in the growth and development of the prefrontal cortex triggered by puberty. On average, the prefrontal cortexes of teen boys are two years behind those of girls. Hence, they are less able to inhibit their impulsive behaviors and more likely to engage in risky behaviors and poor decision-making.

When and How to Get Help if Your Teen is Sneaking Out at Night

If your teenager sneaks out at night without your permission and you do not feel in control of their safety, you should consider seeking professional help.

Remember, it’s not your fault and you are doing your best.

Your child’s emotional development may be behind other areas of their development, at a time when they want (and need) increasing independence.

Speak to your child’s doctor and their school, to learn about local sources of help in your area.

Don’t be afraid if you are offered support from social services. Social workers and parenting workers are experts in safeguarding vulnerable teens. They want to help. They may be able to provide parenting guidance and support, or one-to-one help for your child to build their personal safety awareness.

You may find that therapeutic support (talking therapy) is needed.

Your teenager sneaking out may just be the tip of the iceberg of a much wider problem. It can be a sign of a troubled teen.

If you have concerns about your child’s mental health, consider seeking referral to a child therapist such as a clinical psychologist.

If your relationship with your teen has broken down, support from a family therapist could also be invaluable. Your doctor can advise you on how to find therapists in your local area.

Remember, if your teenager sneaks out and you have urgent concerns about them, don’t hesitate to call the police.

Summary: Connection Over Correction

Trust, mutual respect and open communication will go a long way in preventing your teenager sneaking out.

A useful motto to bear in mind at all times as a parent of a teen is: Connection over correction.

Of course, they need correction sometimes, but connection should always come first.

Don’t be afraid to put in very firm boundaries if your child’s emotional development is delayed and they can’t keep themselves safe.

Try not to be swayed by what their peers are “allowed” to do.

If you are not sure what’s the right thing to do, always err on the side of caution. Independence is important but safety is more important.

My top 10 recommended parenting teenagers books will help you grow your understanding and connection further.

 

 

Further Reading

6 Keys to Parenting Teens Who Flourish

Teenage Behaviour Contracts: Pros and Cons

Is Attention Seeking Behaviour in Teens Normal?

How to Deal With a Difficult Teenager

5 Quick Tips for Staying Calm With Your Child

Managing Difficult Behaviour at Home

The Secrets to Getting Your Child to Listen to You

Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.


UK parents, looking for expert parenting advice?

Dr. Lucy Russell’s Everlief Parent Club offers a clear path towards a calmer, happier family life. This monthly membership includes exclusive workshops, direct support from child psychologists, and access to our private Facebook community.

Together, we can move towards a calm, happy family life and boost your child’s wellbeing. Become a member today!