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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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!