When is it safe for kids to be left at home alone? We examine the top concerns for parent and child, while psychologist David Carey offers some expert advice.
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.
There are no clear guidelines on this one. Choosing when you feel comfortable enough to leave your child at home alone is an independent decision, which relies on your judgement and consideration.
Many parents are pestered by their 11 and 12-year-olds on this issue. Some kids might want to prove their maturity, or maybe babysit their younger siblings. But the decision is usually made on uneasy terms for parents. There are many issues to consider when thinking about leaving your child home alone. Depending on your child’s nature, there are both pros and cons to examine before making the decision.
If this issue is on the table in your house, make careful consideration of the following factors;
Your child’s personality
If your child is nervous, or displays signs of anxiety or insecurity, you may have to delay the process for a while.
Your own personality
Similarly, if you’re feeling nervous or anxious, your child could easily pick up on this and develop a false sense of danger.
If you feel you have reliable neighbours who could be called on in an emergency, this will put both you and your child at ease.
Preparation and establishing the rules
For all parents faced with this decision, safety and wellbeing are of the upmost concern. Parents will naturally worry about things like kitchen accidents or strangers at the door, so leaving a clear set of rules is crucial.
Adopt a day-time only rule to begin with. This means you only leave them alone during the day, making sure they’re not alone after dark.
Answering the door
Establishing a rule regarding callers is of crucial importance. Some people suggest kids shouldn’t answer the door at all, while others find this is impractical. Depending on your viewpoint, and what you feel is safest in your area, make sure the rule is clearly understood.
Regardless of the rules, your child might answer the door on occasion, even by accident. Make sure they know what to say – ‘Mum/Dad’s not available right now’ is a far safer response than ‘No one’s home’.
Staying in contact
Make sure your child knows exactly how to reach you. Do they know your phone number off by heart, and do they know the neighbour’s number? Do they know the emergency service’s number? Some experts advise a few trial-runs, to establish your children know how to reach you whenever they need to.
Have some ‘what-if’ chats
Going through some ‘what-if’ scenarios will help you judge your child’s level of awareness and security with being left alone. Asking them questions like, ‘what if a friend knocks on the door?’ will allow you to come up with a plan and set rules together.
What to eat
Because goodies are an easy resource for peckish youngsters, and their access is usually limited, most kids will go straight for the treats drawer once their parents have left the building. Setting some clear rules, taking stock of the goodies in the house, and providing healthy alternatives should prevent too much junk-snacking.
Caution in the kitchen
It’s highly unadvisable to allow too much kitchen activity when the kids are home alone, particularly if it involves the use of a knife or hot water. Make sure these rules are clear, and your child knows they’re not allowed to mess around in the kitchen unsupervised. A session on kitchen safety is a must for older kids who will be making their own snacks and who might eventually progress to starting dinner before you get home.
If the rules are broken
Decide how you will handle this situation in advance. If you find your child has been watching TV and snacking on crisps instead of cleaning their room or finishing their homework, you might have to explain why you are surprised, and make it clear that they won’t be left alone again for a while.
On a positive note
Though a home-alone experience can raise a whole variety of issues, the positive effects must not be overlooked.
If the choice to leave your child at home is made consciously, and not because you have been let down by a babysitter, it could be viewed as a positive step forward. If handled properly, a home-alone experience can help to boost a child’s self-confidence and sense of independence. The key to this is to learn how to look out for signs of your child’s readiness, without rushing the process.
Often, a child will ask to be left on their own before they’re actually ready. This could be for a number of reasons, such as influence from friends or even TV. Most experts advise to wait until a child has asked maybe three or four times before you give in. And of course avoid leaving them alone for too long on their first few times.
If the first few times go well, your mutual confidence will grow and this could lead to more free time for you, and less stress when it comes to juggling various after-school or work engagements. And who knows, in a little while it could also lead to free babysitting for the younger siblings!
“Leaving a child at home while you are at work or doing messages isn’t an easy decision and there are no clear guidelines about when you can do it, at what age, etc. Generally speaking, children develop a sense of personal autonomy in the late childhood and early adolescent years.” – says David Carey. “However it is also true that children in this age range are also subject to their ability to control their impulses and think through decisions. Most parents are well aware of their child’s developmental level, temperament, impulse control and frustration tolerance. You are also constantly observing their interactions with their siblings.
It is important to take all these things into consideration when making a decision about leaving a child home alone. Ask yourself a few questions: Is the child able to control their impulses and not rush to make inappropriate choices? Can the child control their temper? How well is the child able to tolerate their sibling(s)? What is the child’s level of emotional maturity? What is the child’s level of social maturity? “
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