Whether it's a snow day home from school, an unexpected business appointment, or a childcare arrangement that fell through, situations are likely to arise where you feel you have little choice but to leave your child home alone.
It's natural for parents to be a bit anxious when first leaving kids without supervision. But you can feel prepared and confident with some planning and a couple of trial runs. And handled well, staying home alone can be a positive experience for kids, too, helping them gain a sense of self-assurance and independence.
Factors to Consider
It's obvious that a 5-year-old can't go it alone but that a 16-year-old probably can. But what about those school-aged kids in the middle? It can be difficult to know when kids are ready to handle being home alone. Ultimately, it comes down to your judgment about what your child is ready for.
You'll want to know how your child feels about the idea, of course. But kids often insist that they'll be fine long before parents feel comfortable with it. And then there are older kids who seem afraid even when you're pretty confident that they'd be just fine. So how do you know?
In general, it's not a good idea to leave kids younger than 10 years old home alone. Every child is different, but at that age, most kids don't have the maturity and skills to respond to an emergency if they're alone.
Think about the area where you live. Are there neighbors nearby you know and trust to help your child in case of an emergency? Or are they mostly strangers? Do you live on a busy street with lots of traffic? Or is it a quiet area? Is there a lot of crime in or near your neighborhood?
It's also important to consider how your child handles various situations. Here are a few questions to think about:
- Does your child show signs of responsibility with things like homework, household chores, and following directions?
- How does your child handle unexpected situations? How calm does your child stay when things don't go as planned?
- Does your child understand and follow rules?
- Can your child understand and follow safety measures?
- Does your child make good judgments or is he or she prone to taking risks?
- Does your child know basic first-aid procedures?
- Does your child follow your instructions about staying away from strangers?
Make A "Practice Run"
Even if you're confident about your child's maturity, it's wise to make some practice runs, or home-alone trials, before the big day. Let your child stay home alone for 30 minutes to an hour while you remain nearby and easily reachable. When you return, discuss how it went and talk about things that you might want to change or skills that your child might need to learn for the next time.
Handling the Unexpected
You can feel more confident about your absence if your child learns some basic skills that might come in handy during an emergency. Organizations such as the American Red Cross offer courses in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in local places like schools, hospitals, and community centers.
Before being left home alone home alone, your child should be able to complete certain tasks and safety precautions, such as:
- knowing when and how to call 911 and what address information to give the dispatcher
- knowing how to work the home security system, if you have one, and what to do if the alarm is accidentally set off
- locking and unlocking doors
- working the phone/cell phone (in some areas, you have to dial 1 or the area code to dial out)
- turning lights off and on
- operating the microwave
- knowing what to do if:
- there's a small fire in the kitchen
- the smoke alarm goes off
- there's a tornado or other severe weather
- a stranger comes to the door
- someone calls for a parent who isn't home
- there's a power outage
Regularly discuss some emergency scenarios — ask what your child would do if, for example, he or she smelled smoke, a stranger knocked at the door, or someone called for you while you're gone.
Before You Leave
Even after you decide that your child is ready to stay home alone, you're bound to feel a little anxious when the time comes. Taking these practical steps can make it easier for you both:
- Schedule time to get in touch. Set up a schedule for calling. You might have your child call right away if he or she is coming home to an empty house, or set up a time when you'll call home to check in. Figure out something that's convenient for both of you. Make sure your child understands when you're readily available and when you might not be able to answer a call.
- Set ground rules. Establish some special rules for when you're away and make sure that your child knows and understands them. Consider rules about:
- having a friend or friends over while you're not there
- rooms of the house that are off limits, especially with friends
- TV time and types of shows
- Internet and computer rules
- kitchen and cooking (you might want to make the oven and utensils like sharp knives off limits)
- not opening the door for strangers
- answering the phone
- getting along with siblings
- not telling anyone he or she is alone
- Stock up. Make sure your house has everyday goods and emergency supplies. Stock the kitchen with healthy foods for snacking. Leave a precise dose of any medication that your child needs to take, but don't leave medication bottles out as this could lead to an accidental overdose or ingestion, especially if younger siblings are also present.
In addition, leave flashlights in an accessible place in case of a power outage. Post important phone numbers — yours and those of friends, family members, the doctor, police, and fire department — that your child might need in an emergency.
- Be sure that you:
- Create a list of friends your child can call or things your child can do if lonely.
- Leave a snack or a note so your child knows you're thinking of him or her.
- Make up a schedule for your child to follow while you're away.
- Make sure the parental controls and filtering systems, if you have any, are programmed for the Internet on your computer and on your TV.
- Childproof your home. No matter how well your child follows rules, be sure to secure anything that could be a health or safety risk. Lock them up and put them in a place where kids can't get to them or, when possible, remove them from your home. These items include:
- prescription medications
- over-the-counter medications that could cause problems if taken in excess: sleeping pills, cough medicine, etc.
- guns (if you do keep one, make sure it is locked up and leave it unloaded and stored away from ammunition)
- car keys
- lighters and matches
Ready to Go
When you're ready to leave your child home alone for the first time, a few other steps can help both of you manage the transition.
You might have an older teen or a friend of the family come over to stay with your child. Don't call that person a "babysitter" — tell your child that the person is there to keep him or her company. You might also want to let your child invite a trusted friend of the same age to come over, and propose this as a trial run for later solo stays. Be sure to let the friend's parents know that you won't be home.
And don't forget that pets can be great company for kids who are home alone. Many kids feel safer with a pet around — even a small one, like a hamster, can make them feel like they have a companion.
So cover your bases and relax. With the right preparation and some practice, you and your child will get comfortable with home-alone days in no time!
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: January 2013