A common questions I get asked…
When Can I leave My Child Home Alone?
Every parent wants to know—when is it ok to leave my child at home alone? Whether you and your spouse just want to enjoy a date night or you’re hoping for a quick kid-free trip to the grocery store, it’s important to ask yourself a few questions before you head off. Assume nothing.
Here are 4 questions to consider:
1. At what age is it LEGAL to leave my child home alone?
A lot of states have age minimums. A lot of states don’t
But you know as well as I do that the chronological age of the child does not tell you a thing about the emotional age of a child recovering from complex developmental trauma. So while we should most definitely take into account the state’s legal guidelines, be sure to consider all 4 questions on this list before heading out without the kids.
As it stands, only 3 states have a legal age limit for leaving kids at home, while 10 others have an age “guideline.” The reality is, if a child is reported to be unattended, local Children’s Services will be the ones to determine whether that child was left inappropriately—even if there isn’t a strict law in place.
While the law is a helpful resource, one thing is certain, you have to make sure your child is ready no matter what the law says.
2. What signs does your child show that indicate they are ready for the responsibility?
Think for a minute about your child’s overall sense of judgment.
- Do they willingly follow house rules without reminders?
- Do they generally make good decisions and understand the consequences of poor decisions?
- Do they demonstrate good impulse control?
- Are they problem solvers?
- Can they follow a set routine?
- Are they generally aware of their surroundings or do they have tunnel vision at times?
Many children recovering from traumatic childhood experiences will not be able to be left alone at home ever. It is just a fact. And many will be able to be left early on because their impairment is limited or resolved.
Leaving a child at home is a super-duper big deal and it needs to be a good decision for all involved.
Does your child WANT to stay at home alone? If your child struggles with fear, anxiety, nightmares, etc., staying at home alone might not be something they’d like to do (even if their peers want to).
By answering the questions above honestly, you can have a good sense if your child is ready for this type of responsibility. And, if they aren’t, you can identify areas for growth and make a plan to help your child demonstrate mature behaviors for the future.
3. What skills are needed before leaving your child home alone for the first time?
Once you’ve determined that your child is behaviorally mature enough to be left alone, it’s time to make sure they have the appropriate skills required to function on their own.
The beauty of preparing a child to stay home alone is that you’re simultaneously giving them the skills to be a competent, responsible, capable adult.
Take a look at this list and see if your child has the necessary skills to fly solo in your house.
Does your child…
- Know how to make a snack?
- Know who to call in an emergency?
- Know basic first-aid and where the first-aid kit is located?
- Know where the fire extinguisher is located and how to use it?
- Know full name, address, and 2 phone numbers of emergency contacts?
- Know parents’ full names?
- Know how and when to call 911 and what information to give the dispatcher?
- Know how to operate the microwave?
- Know how to lock and secure doors?
- Know what to do if someone comes to the door?
If you can confidently say “yes,” to each of the above questions, that’s a good sign your child is prepared to function at home for a short period of time without you.
Still not sure if your child has the appropriate skills?
4. Is it better to leave an only child home alone or is it better if there are siblings?
This question can only be answered on a case-by-case basis, but there are a few guidelines to consider when determining whether or not it’s best to leave siblings at home together.
First of all, just because a child possesses the skills and behaviors described above to stay safely at home, doesn’t mean they’d be as successful with a sibling around.
Think of “adding a sibling” as “adding another ball to juggle.” Sure, as individuals, they can take care of themselves, but when given a new distraction or a new task to manage, can they do both?
Furthermore, if sibling rivalry plagues your household, then leaving the kids at home together probably isn’t the best choice.
Either way, here are a few thoughts to consider before you decide if they’re better together or better apart…
- How long do you plan on being gone?
- What are the ages of the kids?
- Can they work collaboratively without one child “taking charge”?
- Have they consistently modeled appropriate behavior with each other?
- Do they use appropriate conflict-resolution tools?
- Do they physically harm each other in conflict?
As with everything in parenting, this takes time. It’s important to ensure your child feels confident when staying home alone by themselves before you add a sibling to the mix.
Important tip for leaving siblings home together: Don’t put one in charge of the other—that’s a recipe for sibling competition and resentment. Instead, give each child a specific task—one is in charge of making lunch, ones’ in charge of cleaning up, the other selects the movie, etc. That way they are working as a team for the success of the afternoon alone.
Action Plan for Leaving Kids at Home
What do you do once you have made the decision to leave your child(ren) home alone?
Test run for sure. For your first time away, don’t plan on being gone for longer than 15 to 30 minutes. Hardly time to go the post office, right? Right. Also, hardly enough time to burn the house down either.
Before you leave, make sure any and all hazards are locked up. No matter how much you trust your child, you’ll have greater peace of mind knowing you’ve left them in a safe environment. Here are just a few items to be sure you’ve secured:
Next, it’s time to run through some scenarios. Does your child know what to do if:
- there’s a small fire in the kitchen?
- the smoke alarm goes off?
- there’s severe weather?
- a stranger comes to the door?
- someone calls for a parent who isn’t home?
- there’s a power outage?
Lastly, lay out some simple ground rules and have them posted for a reminder.
- No friends allowed over
- Don’t open the door for anyone
- No stovetop cooking
- Complete chores
- Never tell anyone you’re home alone—even friends—and don’t post on social media
- Finish homework before technology/TV time
- If there’s an emergency, call 911 FIRST, and then a parent
- Don’t leave the house.
I get it—there are a lot of factors to consider when you leave your kids at home. The last thing you want is them to reenact Macaulay Culkin’s performance in the classic movie, Home Alone.
I hope this is helpful.
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