Leaving Teens and Tweens Home Alone

With summer here, many parents are facing the difficult decision of whether or not to leave their teen or tween home alone while they work. Even if you’re not a working parent, deciding when your child is ready to stay home by himself is a challenging prospect. There are many factors to consider, but we will offer you some guidelines.

Determine if your child is ready.

First, you should call your local social services department to find out if your locality has any legal age requirements for leaving a child alone. According to the National Child Care Information Center, “Most states do not have regulations or laws about when a child is considered old enough to stay home alone. Some states have guidelines or recommendations. These guidelines are most often from child protective services and are administered at the county level.” However, the National SAFEKIDS Campaign recommends that no child under the age of 12 be left home alone.

We highly recommend that parents take into consideration both their child’s age and maturity level. Just because your child is 12-years-old does not mean that they are responsible enough to stay home by themselves. Additionally, parents should ask their child how they feel about staying home alone. If your child is at all hesitant, then drop the issue and reconsider next year.

Start slowly.

Once you have decided to allow your child to stay home alone, you should begin slowly with several trials, leaving your child for short periods of time. Begin with thirty minutes, and then add on time gradually as your child’s confidence (and your trust) grows. Always, leave a phone number where you can be reached. If possible, provide a land line in addition to your cell phone number, just in case your company’s service is disrupted for any reason. Call home to check on your child.

Establish clear and specific expectations and rules.

Parents must develop, preferably WITH their teen, their expectations and rules while they are gone. Rules should be fair, firm and clear with specific consequences for not following them. Your expectations must be specific, such as how much TV is allowed, what channels are off-limits, should your child answer the phone or the door, can they use the computer or play video games, are friends allowed over, can they use the microwave or oven, can your child go to a friend’s house, and when they should check in with you. Also, make it clear if you expect your child to practice the piano, set the table for dinner, or other tasks during his time alone.

Do a safety check.

Lock all medications and firearms away. Double check that smoke detectors are operating properly. Install a peep hole in your front door and give them specific guidelines for keeping the door locked at all times and whether or not to answer the door while you’re gone. Restock your first aid kit and teach your child how to use it. Consider enrolling your child in a local first aid class through your Red Cross. Install caller ID on your phone so that he or she knows who is calling the house and be sure they know to never tell or hint to someone that they are home alone. Think through any other possible problem areas that could cause your child harm.

Establish a routine.

Without any parental guidance, teens can easily fall into an unhealthy routine of sleeping half the day away and then playing video games the rest of the time. Parents should sit down with their teen and set up a few specific targets, such as a time to wake up, a time to have breakfast, and a time to complete a chore. Then, together, you should brainstorm a list of things your teen can do in their free time. Next week’s blog will cover this idea in depth.

Teach the proper response to problems and emergencies.

One of the biggest reasons parents worry about leaving their child home alone is not the normal, everyday happenings, but rather the “what if.” Problems and emergencies may crop up and parents worry, legitimately, whether their child can handle them. So, one of the most important steps in preparing your child to stay home alone is teaching them how to handle the unusual.

First, teach your children the difference between a problem and an emergency. A problem is something that they need help with, but does not require emergency services. An emergency is a situation that requires immediate assistance from the police, fire department, or an ambulance. Once they have identified the difference, help them to develop proper responses to each.

When your child experiences a problem – such as feeling scared, having difficulty getting inside the house, or experiencing a power outage – you should have an emergency contact list of phone numbers (posted in a convenient, central location) for your teen so that he or she knows who to turn to for help.

When your child experiences an emergency – such as a fire, a break-in, or a medical emergency – your children need to know who to call and what to say. They should call 9-1-1 first (not you, which would be their likely response), and they must be prepared to state their full name, address, and the nature of the emergency. Additionally, in the case of a fire, you should instruct them to leave the house first before calling 9-1-1.

It’s very effective to role play situations with your child. And it’s especially enlightening (and humorous) to do each situation the right way and the wrong way (and explain why it’s wrong). Scenarios to role play include a stranger comes to the door, answering the phone, your child breaks their leg, the carbon monoxide detector goes off, a fire starts, the power goes out, or someone is trying to break in.

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