M. Healy. (1988, August 15). “Latch-key kids are depression targets.” USA Today.
The number of “latch-key kids” is rising. The obvious reason for this is the two-income family. The sacrificial lamb turns out to be the child or children of the family. Parents who rely on the latch-key system are not without fears. Parents fear physical dangers for younger children such as fire, injury, abduction, and the like. For older children and teenagers parents fear social dangers such as pregnancy or drug and alcohol use. Yet, parents may not realize the psychological risks of self-care at these early ages.
American University researcher Lynette Long says, “Kids aged 12-15 who are regularly left unsupervised for long periods frequently have feelings of abandonment, frustration, anger and despair.” It is uncertain whether this is because they are alone or because the family is in disarray. It is likely that the two merge.
Teen girls who are left alone are found to be more depressed than boys. They have fewer freedoms than boys because parents decrease their mobility by having them care for other siblings, do household chores, or even fix the family dinner. By confining girls, parents feel they are protecting them from victimization and sexual activity.
Researchers conclude that more than 12 hours each week for an elementary-school child, or 20 hours for a high-school student, is too much time for them to spend alone. A latch-key teen left alone five or more days a week is a prime candidate for clinical depression.
With today’s economic demands, being a latch-key kid is a way of life for most kids. It is also something that will likely continue for a period of years. Although parents’ fears may change with the age group, they may totally miss the long term psychological effects on their children.
Youth workers can help educate parents about the psychological risks for latch-key kids. Significant other adults need to be in a child’s life if a parent is absent from the home for long periods of time. Kids need new ways to fill the hours, instead of being allowed to fend for themselves or being loaded with “adult” chores. Communities offer supervised sports activities, art and music classes, and some volunteer opportunities. Encourage parents to seek these opportunities for their children. Youth programs and significant contact work are helpful for a teen who has extra time.
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