My parents and I had a deal when I was a teen. I had a “free phone call”. If I was stuck somewhere and my only option to get home was to drive drunk or impaired- or a get a ride from someone who might be a danger- I could call them to pick me up. They would ask no questions and give no punishments.

My parents could think of two situations where this might apply: driving or riding with a drunk driver, or dating someone who turned out to be predatory. They knew it was a possibility that I might be out after my curfew, or when I wasn’t supposed to be out at all, and find myself in a dangerous situation. They promised I could call with no repercussions.  This also led into a good conversation about how to take steps to be safe and try to avoid those situations altogether. We talked about drunk driving and the family friends it had killed, dating safely, and about my responsibility to protect myself.

Some parents don’t like the free phone call idea at all. They want their teens to call if they’re in trouble, but want to be able to get an explanation for what happened, and punish them if they were breaking the rules. I can see their point of view- why promise there will be no consequences to behavior that deserves consequences?

There are alternatives to try and ensure a safe ride home. Parents can give their teen enough cab fare to make it home from anywhere they might conceivably be, and ask them to save it for emergencies like those above. (Obviously, this only works if their teen can be trusted not to spend it on something else.)  If their teen has an older brother or sister who drives, they can ask them to set up an “emergency plan” with each other.

I like the free phone call because it opens up communication. Even parents who have promised not to ask about the situation can simply say, “I promised I wouldn’t ask you questions and I won’t. But I am worried about what happened. If you feel okay talking to me, even about part of it, please let me know. I promise I won’t punish you for what you tell me, although I might ask about ways I can help you.”

Many teens use alcohol or drugs and then drive, at least once, or accept transportation from people using alcohol or drugs. They may have a boyfriend or girlfriend their parents don’t approve of- usually someone older- and be unaware of the risky situations they might end up in. They may be going to parties where people are drinking and things can get out of control.

To an adult, the idea of getting in a car with a drunk driver- which can kill you- versus being punished, which won’t- is an easy call. But teens aren’t always thinking clearly when they make this sort of decision.

I never had to use my free phone call. Partly through good advice from my parents and partly through luck, I never got stuck and had to cash it in. Without the free phone call promise, I might have been scared or ashamed to call my parents and get into trouble, or to disappoint them. After our discussion, I always knew it was an option no matter what situation I might end up in.