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To Roam, or Not to Roam?

I'm a single mom of a 12-year-old girl. I feel uncomfortable letting my preteen go with her friends to the park where I cannot see them, or walk some distance away to get ice cream—but this is what kids do in my area! I don't want to be telling my daughter "no" all the time, so I let her carry my cell phone for safety reasons. What are the right boundaries to set for her age?

A. Every parent of a young teen asks this question. And it's that much more difficult for you since you're a single parent.

Unfortunately, no generalization fits all situations or locations. That's why it's important to talk to other parents about your community's safety issues and to listen to your instincts on what is or isn't safe. But here are some general principles to help you determine your unique set of guidelines for your daughter:

Develop a written list of dos and don'ts about where she can go and what she can do. Be sure to review it annually. Each year you should add an additional measure of freedom and responsibility.

Have kids travel in groups. A lone kid of any age is vulnerable to a predator. No one can forget the recent case in Florida when Carlie Brucia was abducted and later murdered after she walked home from school through an empty parking lot.

Stroll around your neighborhood with your child and talk through the safety issues. Secluded areas are to be avoided. Populated and lighted areas (at all points in travel) are always to be used.

Have your teen develop a short list of her safety rules (without your input) and see how savvy she is on these issues.

Together attend a Safe Kids Home and Safe Kids Out program that has tailored suggestions for your community. Read Respecting the Gift by Gavin de Becker, a securities expert who has written this terrific book on how to protect our kids. And teach your daughter to listen to her own body signals regarding safety and danger.

Try finding another working parent, perhaps the mother of one of your daughter's friends, with a different schedule than yours, and swap "girl dates" to cover some of the after-school time at a friend's house. Perhaps her daughter could come over to your house on a Saturday. This increases the supervised time without increasing expenses.

Finally, consider enrolling your daughter in some after-school activities that provide some enriching built-in structure.

Help! I'm raising my 14-year-old granddaughter. Her father's not in her life, and she's so boy crazy, I don't know what to do.

A. Do you know any male youth leaders, uncles, or church members you trust to lend a fatherly influence? Ask God to show you someone from your church who might provide a healthy role model for your granddaughter.

Then have a short chat with her. Ask your granddaughter, "How do you want to come across to boys?" "What kind of impact do you think you have on boys?" "What have you learned from other women about how you want or don't want to be like with boys?" "Who is the safest man in your life?" "How can you develop a stronger relationship with him?" Listen carefully to her responses—you may even want to take some notes as she talks.

While you're at it, why not ask your granddaughter what would make living with you better for her? Suggest she make a list of the house rules and consequences she feels are fair; then write out your own ideas about rules after you talk to some other parents of teens in your church. Then pool your lists together.

You may want to consider undergoing some brief family therapy (six to eight months) to work on how to blend your new family and how to set up rules and discipline.

Let me commend you for taking in your granddaughter. Parenting a teen can be a shock to anyone, no matter the circumstances. Be sure to tap into your support network as you raise her in the next few years. You've taken on a lot, but God will be there for you, even when you feel like pulling your hair out.

I'm concerned about my three-year-old nephew, who was raised for 18 months by his divorced mother. My sister then left him with his remarried father and new wife while she received intense mental-health care. His father now feels he can no longer handle his son because he's causing problems with his marriage. I don't feel my sister's strong enough to raise my nephew, but I'm not sure what to do.

A. Your nephew's blessed to have you in his life! In unstable family situations, often one extended family member—such as you—makes the difference in a child having a good shot at life.

Talk to your ex-brother-in-law about undergoing family therapy before he makes such a drastic change. Rejecting a child if he/she doesn't behave won't serve well either his son or the children he and his new wife might have together. If finances are a concern, consider helping them out with the cost of counseling, if possible. Choose a Christian licensed marriage and family therapist with experience working with young children.

Continue to be a constant in your nephew's life regardless of his living arrangements. At his age, weekly or more frequent contact is ideal. Offer to care for him one to two times a week at your house, if you can. It's natural for your ex-brother-in-law and his wife to feel overwhelmed. This respite will provide them with some much-needed couple time—and help develop a deeper bond between you and your nephew.

Have you ever thought about adopting your nephew? I realize this is a huge consideration, but if you sense neither parent is committed to him, you may want to pray about this option. These disruptions in caregiver stability may well have affected your nephew's emotional attachment to his parents. His current acting-out is a natural response to all the change he's been through. If you pursue adoption, I recommend you request all biological parental rights be terminated. While it's critical to keep both parents in your nephew's life, it's also essential to stop the revolving door of parenting arrangements that he's experienced up to now.

God's blessings as you go forward!

Karen L. Maudlin, Psy.D., is the mother of two and a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy. She is the author of Sticks and Stones (W).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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