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Children Home Alone

More and more parents work outside the home. Many school age children in the US are left alone for at least part of the day. Children who come home to an empty house after school are also called latchkey kids.

For many parents, leaving a child home alone for part of the day may seem like the best option. It can be a way to save money on child care. It can also help children develop independence and self-confidence. However, make sure that you think through all the options, and know that your child is ready for this kind of responsibility.

What are the risks?

Children left home alone are more likely to be the victims of crimes. Afternoons are also the times when children are most likely to commit crimes such as shoplifting or vandalism. Unsupervised children and teens are also more likely to use drugs, drink alcohol, smoke, and engage in sexual activity.

Latchkey children are more likely to feel lonely, bored, or scared. Some get depressed. It helps to have a neighbor or friend that your child can visit sometimes. It also helps to keep your child busy with homework, chores, or other activities.

What are the options?

Check with your employer to see if you could work a flexible schedule. This could allow you to be home with your child after school. Many companies have child care centers for the employees' children. If not, you could suggest they start one.

If money is a concern, see if a grandparent or other relative could take care of your child. You might be able to set up a parenting co-op where parents take turns caring for the children. You might also be able to find other working parents to share the costs of hiring a babysitter to come to your home.

You might look into tutoring, school clubs, sports, or volunteer activities for your child. Many schools have after school programs. If your school doesn't, check with your PTA, school, or place of worship to see if they can get a program started. You can also check into programs offered through Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA's, libraries, health clubs, and Parks and Recreation Departments.

Is my child ready?

If you are thinking about leaving your child home alone regularly, the most important thing for you to know is that your child is ready. Here are some of the things for you to consider:

  • Age: Check with your local Child Protective Services office to find out the legal age that children may be left alone. Many experts advise that no child should be left alone before the age of 12.
  • Maturity: This is not always related to age. Your child needs to be tall enough to lock and unlock doors. She must be able to think through problems and decide how to handle them. This includes being able to follow directions, solve problems, and handle unexpected situations without panicking. Your child needs to have enough self-confidence and courage to resist peer pressure. She needs to be able to make good choices. If your child can get herself ready for school on time and complete homework and household chores with little supervision, she may be ready to stay home alone.
  • Comfort Level: Make sure your child is comfortable with being left home by herself. The best way to find this out is to ask her. Your child should be able to talk about her feelings, ask for help if she needs it, and be able to tell the truth, even if it means she might get in trouble.
  • Neighborhood Safety: Think carefully about the safety of your neighborhood. Be sure your child can get home safely. It is very helpful to have neighbors who are willing to help your child if needed.

How do I prepare my child to be home alone?

  • Prepare your home. Lock up all liquor, medicines, dangerous cleaning products, inhalants, power tools, and firearms. Make sure your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are working. Leave a light on so your child doesn't come to a dark, empty house. Provide healthy snacks.
  • Have phone numbers of family, neighbors, police, and the fire department posted where your child can find them, such as on the refrigerator or by the phone. If you do not have a landline, make sure your child has a cell phone that is fully charged. You can program emergency numbers into the cell phone.
  • Set up rules. Be sure your child understands what is allowed. Talk about playing outside, having friends over, Internet and TV use, and using the microwave, stove, and other appliances. It is a good idea to post these rules where your child can see them and to go over the rules from time to time. It is important that your child knows that she needs to follow the rules, even when you aren't there.
  • Post a schedule for your child. Include chores, homework, and what you expect of your child. Go over it with your child ahead of time so that she knows what is expected of her every day. This gives your child some structure and a sense of security.
  • Emphasize to your child that safety is important. Teach your child how to look for signs of forced entry before going into the house. Have your child check in with you or someone you trust as soon as she comes home. Have your child practice what to do if she loses his key, if a sibling gets hurt or feels sick, or other situations that might come up.
  • Be sure your child has a key to your home and knows the security code, if there is one. Show your child how to turn the alarm system on and off. Teach her to keep all windows and doors locked and not to open the door to anyone. Losing keys is a big problem for latchkey children. Have her wear the key around her neck or pin it to her clothing. It is a good idea to have a spare key somewhere safe, such as a neighbors' house, where your child can find it if she loses hers.
  • Decide ahead of time how your child should answer the phone. Practice what your child should say. Also set rules for texting and what can be posted on social media. Your child should not let anyone know the address or that she is home alone.
  • Make sure your child knows how to call the police or fire department. Practice what to do in case of emergency. Be sure your child knows how to escape in case of fire. Teach your child basic first aid. Make sure there is a first aid kit in the house and that your child knows where it is and how to use it. Teach your child where to go and what to do in case of a severe storm, power outage, or other unexpected situation, such as a water leak. Make sure your child knows where the flashlight and batteries are kept.
  • Leave emergency money. Tell your child where it is and when she should use it.
  • Try it for a short time. Leave her home alone for an hour or two while you stay nearby. This is a good way to see how she will manage and then talk about any questions or concerns that may arise.
  • Try not to leave your child home alone when she is sick. If you can’t stay home, see if a friend, neighbor, or family member can stay with your child.
  • Think about having your child take a first-aid or babysitting course. These classes can help know what to do in an emergency. This can help your child feel more confident.

Call her each day to be sure she has arrived home safely and that everything is OK. Let your child know if you will be a few minutes late so that she doesn’t worry. Check with your child regularly to see how she feels about being home alone. Ask your child to let you know about anything that scares her or makes her feel uncomfortable. Thank your child for helping with chores and tell her that you are proud of her.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-09-29
Last reviewed: 2014-09-29
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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