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Children Home Alone

More and more parents work outside the home. One third of all school age children in the United States are left alone for at least part of the week. Children who come home to an empty house after school are called latchkey children.

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 cigarettes, and engage in sexual activity.

Latchkey children are more likely to feel lonely, bored, or scared. Some become depressed. It helps to have a neighbor or friend that the child can visit sometimes. It also helps to keep 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, 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. This could be a college student, a stay at home mom, or a retiree.

Many teachers believe that children who are left home alone are more likely to have problems in school. 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: Maturity is not always related to age. Children need to be big and strong enough to be able to handle locking and unlocking doors and using fire extinguishers. They 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.
  • Comfort Level: Make sure the child is comfortable with being left home by themselves. The best way to find this out is to ask them. They should be able to talk about feeling bored, lonely, or scared. They should get along well with other children and with adults so that they can ask for help if they need it. Parents need to be able to trust the child to tell the truth, even if it means they may get in trouble. A child needs to have enough self-confidence and courage to resist peer pressure. They need to be able to think clearly and make the choices you would want them to. Children who can get themselves ready for school on time and complete homework and household chores with little supervision tend to do better staying home alone.
  • Neighborhood Safety: Think carefully about the safety of the neighborhood as you decide whether to leave a child home alone. Be sure children can walk home safely. It is very helpful if there are neighbors who are willing to help if needed.

How do I prepare my child to be home alone?

  • Prepare your home before the child is left alone. Lock up all liquor, medicines, dangerous cleaning products, inhalants, power tools, and firearms. Make sure your smoke detectors are working. Have phone numbers of family, neighbors, police, and the fire department posted by the phone as well as parents' work numbers. Leave a light on so your child doesn't come to a dark, empty house. Provide healthy snacks.
  • Set up the household rules upfront. Be sure the child understands what is allowed. Cover 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 the child can see them and to go over the rules from time to time. It is important that the child knows that parents are in charge, even when they aren't there.
  • Post a schedule for the child. Include chores, homework, and other expectations. Go over it with children ahead of time so they know what is expected of them every day. This provides them some structure and a sense of security.
  • Emphasize to children that safety is always first. Teach the child how to look for signs of forced entry before they go into the house. Have them check in with you or someone you trust as soon as they come home. Have your child practice what to do if they lose their key, if a sibling gets hurt or feels sick, or other situations that might come up.
  • Be sure the child has a key to the home and knows the security code, if there is one. Teach them 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 them wear the key around their neck or pin it to their clothing. It is a good idea to have a spare key somewhere safe, such as a neighbors' house, where the child can find it if they lose theirs.
  • Decide ahead of time how your child should answer the phone. They should not let anyone who calls know that they are home alone. Practice with them what they should say. Make sure your child knows how to call the police or fire department. Practice what to do in case of emergency. Be sure they know how to escape in case of fire. The child must also know where the fire extinguisher is and how to use it. Teach the 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.
  • Children need to know where to go and what to do in case of a severe storm, power outage, or other unexpected situation. Teach children how to shut off the electricity and water. They also need to know where the flashlight and batteries are and when they should get them out.
  • Leave emergency money. Tell the child where it is and when they should use it.
  • Try not to leave a sick child home alone. Children need comfort and nurturing when they are sick.

Remember that they are still children and will make mistakes. Treat their mistakes as learning experiences rather than failures. Check with them regularly to see how they feel about being home alone and if they have any concerns. Encourage the child to let you know about anything that scares them or makes them feel uncomfortable. Tell your child often how proud you are of them and how much you appreciate them.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-10-07
Last reviewed: 2011-10-06
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.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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