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Leaving Children Home Alone: Tips for Parents

Parents are naturally a bit anxious when first leaving children without supervision, but you can feel prepared and confident with some planning and a couple of trial runs.

Handled well, staying home alone can be a positive experience for children, helping them gain a sense of independence and confidence.

It's obvious that a 4-year-old can't go it alone, but that a 15-year-old probably can. But what should you do about those school-aged children in between? It can be difficult to know when children are ready to handle being home alone. Ultimately, it comes down to your judgment about what your youngster is ready for.

You'll want to know how your youngster feels about the idea, of course. But children often insist that they'll be fine long before moms and dads feel comfortable with it. And then there are older children 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 children younger than 10 years old home alone. Every youngster is different, but at that age, most children don't have the maturity and skills to respond to an emergency if they're alone.

Think about the area where you live. In case of an emergency, are there neighbors nearby you know and trust to help your youngster? 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 youngster handles various situations. Here are a few questions to think about:
  • Can your youngster understand and follow safety measures?
  • Does your youngster follow your instructions about staying away from strangers?
  • Does your youngster know basic first-aid procedures?
  • Does your youngster make good judgments or is he or she prone to taking risks?
  • Does your youngster show signs of responsibility with things like homework, household chores, and following directions?
  • Does your youngster understand and follow rules?
  • How does your youngster handle unexpected situations? How calm does your youngster stay when things don't go as planned?

Practice first. Even if you're confident about your youngster's maturity, it's wise to make some practice runs, or home-alone trials, before the big day. Let your youngster 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 youngster might need to learn for the next time.

Prepare for emergencies. You can feel more confident about your absence if your youngster 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 youngster should be able to complete certain tasks and safety precautions, such as:
  • knowing how to work the home security system, if you have one, and what to do if the alarm is accidentally set off
  • knowing when and how to call 911 and what address information to give the dispatcher
  • locking and unlocking doors
  • operating the microwave
  • turning lights off and on
  • working the phone/cell phone (in some areas, you have to dial 1 or the area code to dial out)
  • knowing what to do if (a) a stranger comes to the door, (b) someone calls for a parent who isn't home, (c) the smoke alarm goes off, (d) there's a power outage, (e) there's a small fire in the kitchen, or (f) there's a tornado or other severe weather

Regularly discuss some emergency scenarios — ask what your youngster 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.

Things To Do Before You Leave—

Even after you decide that your youngster 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:

• Set up a schedule for calling. You might have your youngster call right away if he or she is coming home to an empty house, or set up a time when you'll call home to check in. Figure out something that's convenient for both of you. Make sure your youngster understands when you're readily available and when you might not be able to answer a call.

• Make sure your house has everyday goods and emergency supplies. Stock the kitchen with healthy foods for snacking. Leave a precise dose of any medication that your youngster needs to take, but don't leave medication bottles out as this could lead to an accidental overdose or ingestion, especially if younger siblings are also present. In addition, leave flashlights in an accessible place in case of a power outage. Post important phone numbers — yours and those of friends, family members, the doctor, police, and fire department — that your youngster might need in an emergency.

• Be sure that you (a) create a list of friends your youngster can call or things your youngster can do if lonely, (b) leave a snack or a note so your youngster knows you're thinking of him or her, (c) make sure the parental controls and filtering systems are programmed for the Internet on your computer and on your TV, and (d) take up a schedule for your youngster to follow while you're away.

• No matter how well your youngster follows rules, be sure to secure anything that could be a health or safety risk. Lock them up and put them in a place where children can't get to them or, when possible, remove them from your home. These items include:
  • alcohol
  • car keys
  • guns (if you do keep one, make sure it is locked up and leave it unloaded and stored away from ammunition)
  • lighters and matches
  • over-the-counter medications that could cause problems if taken in excess: sleeping pills, cough medicine, etc.
  • prescription medications
  • tobacco

• Establish some special rules for when you're away and make sure that your youngster knows and understands them. Consider rules about:
  • answering the phone
  • getting along with siblings
  • having a friend or friends over while you're not there
  • Internet and computer rules
  • kitchen and cooking (you might want to make the oven and utensils like sharp knives off limits)
  • not opening the door for strangers
  • not telling anyone he or she is alone
  • rooms of the house that are off limits, especially with friends
  • TV time and types of shows

Things To Do When You’re Ready To Leave—

When you're ready to leave your youngster home alone for the first time, a few other steps can help both of you manage the transition:

• Don't forget that pets can be great company for children who are home alone. Many children feel safer with a pet around — even a small one, like a hamster, can make them feel like they have a companion.

• You might have an older teenager or a friend of the family come over to stay with your youngster. Don't call that person a "babysitter" — tell your youngster that the person is there to keep him or her company. You might also want to let your youngster 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 moms and dads know that you won't be home.

So cover your bases and relax. With the right preparation and some practice, you and your youngster will get comfortable with home-alone days in no time!

==> Help for Parents with Out-of-Control Teens

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