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Absentee-Parenting Pitfalls : Safety is not the only factor to consider when siblings are left without adult supervision, according to local child-care experts. It's also important to evaluate the emotional impact on each child, especially the one left in charge.


It didn't take Deborah Brociek long to realize she'd made a mistake when she accepted a full-time job about two years ago and started leaving her two children home alone for a few hours every weekday afternoon.

Brociek, a Fullerton resident, says she decided to put Andrea, who was then 11, in charge of 10-year-old Ryan instead of hiring a baby-sitter, because her daughter had demonstrated a maturity beyond her years, and the siblings were such close companions that conflict seemed unlikely.

But the harmony that prevailed between them when Brociek was home quickly broke down in her absence. Ryan refused to accept his sister as an authority figure, and Andrea became excessively bossy as she struggled to maintain control over her restless, adventurous brother.

Brociek often received disturbing phone calls at work from both children. Andrea was usually frustrated and worried because her brother had taken off without telling her where he was going, and Ryan would complain that his sister was too strict.

Gradually, Brociek became aware that her children, who had once been inseparable, were "pulling away from each other." After a year of listening to them argue over issues that wouldn't have come up if an adult had been in charge, Brociek quit her job.

She feels lucky that she could afford to do that before World War III broke out in her household--and before her son, who had fallen off a bicycle and broken his arm during one unauthorized after-school outing, got into any more trouble.

Brociek was certain when she quit her job that the animosity between Andrea and Ryan would continue to grow if she didn't release her daughter from the role of surrogate parent. She says Andrea was thrilled to be relieved of that responsibility, and once the siblings were no longer engaged in a daily power struggle, they quickly began to rediscover the closeness they had enjoyed before.

Brociek learned--the hard way--that there are psychological as well as physical risks involved when siblings are left without adult supervision. Although safety is vital, it isn't the only factor parents should seriously consider when weighing the pros and cons of leaving their children home alone.

According to child-care experts, it's also important to evaluate the emotional impact a do-it-yourself child-care arrangement might have on each child in the family--particularly the one who is left in charge.


John Yzaguirre, a pediatric psychologist at Children's Hospital of Orange County, points out that the potential for problems is greatest in families that are under a lot of stress.

If the children's basic emotional needs--for attention, affection and approval--are not being met when mom and dad are home, they're more likely to feel cheated and misbehave when their parents are away, he observes.

Stressed-out parents should never try to make their own lives easier by delegating too much responsibility to their offspring or expecting older children to assume a parental role and meet the emotional needs of younger siblings. As Yzaguirre puts it: "If they are being asked to be mom or dad for the other kids, that would be inappropriate. If they're asked to be a good brother or sister and the role is clearly defined in terms that are fair, that's different."

In an ideal situation, children learn how to manage their anger, resolve conflicts and be more cooperative when they're home alone. And, while young children benefit from having a caring, responsible older sibling to look up to, the one who is left in charge has a chance to develop his or her nurturing skills and become more empathetic, Yzaguirre notes.

However, he cautions, "if you give more responsibility than the child is willing to assume, you're putting both the older and the younger sibling at risk."

Older children may feel abandoned and become resentful if they are given more responsibility than they're ready to handle. "They get angry because they're being robbed of their own childhood," Yzaguirre explains.


In that emotional state, they may not prove to be as reliable as parents think they are. Kelly Hogrefe, a child development specialist at Orange Coast College Children's Center in Costa Mesa, observes: "If you feel imposed upon, you don't look at the responsibility as seriously as you should."

Hogrefe has three daughters--ages 15, 12 and 9--and she has made a special effort to avoid using her oldest as a "substitute mother" for the younger siblings. For a while after her first-born was old enough to baby-sit, Hogrefe kept her youngest girls in child - care programs. That gave her oldest daughter some time to herself before the siblings came home and helped her feel less burdened when she was asked to baby-sit.

Now, the three girls are often left with the oldest in charge, but the 9-year-old still goes to a child-care program two afternoons a week, and the 12-year-old is able to fend for herself most of the time.

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