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Home Alone

Although no parent wants to leave his or her child at home unsupervised, the fact is many parents have no choice but to leave the kids home alone. Some are left for 30 minutes while Mom runs to the supermarket. But many are left for longer periods -- usually the hours between the end of school and a parent's return from work.

Parents may feel backed into a corner when their child is too old to have a babysitter but lacks the "home-alone" experience. So how do you know if your child is ready to be left "in charge?" And what about parental concerns like child abductions, Internet predators, and experimentation with drugs and alcohol?

Read on for tips to help you decide if your youngster is ready to be left alone. Also, learn how to prepare him for this big step so that he'll be safe and sound when you walk through the door at night.

Before you make the big decision to leave your child in charge at home, make sure she is mature enough for such a big responsibility. Although some states have laws that determine the age at which children may be left unsupervised, most leave parents to figure it out on their own. The following guidelines should help.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry says older adolescents can handle the home-alone responsibility for limited periods of time. With younger children, aged 10 to 12, the academy advises parents to consider the individual child's maturity level and track record of responsible behavior.

Emotional readiness for being alone varies greatly from child to child. Would your child feel comfortable calling a neighbor for help? How about telling a caller that Mom can't come to the phone because she's busy? You also need to think about how your child might do in an emergency situation. If she cut herself while slicing a bagel would she know what to do? Can she remember instructions and phone numbers under pressure? Finally, is she able to talk about and express her feelings? Would she let you know if she were scared or lonely when you weren't there? Take a few weeks to observe your child and discuss these ideas with her.

Once you've decided your child is ready to be left alone for a few hours, you need to prepare him well. Go through a list of hypothetical situations, and even consider role-playing with him. Here is a partial list of what to review:

  • If someone calls or stops by the house, you child should never reveal that he's home alone. He should have rehearsed some answers such as, "My mom is busy in the kitchen. Can I take a message?"
  • Your child should carry her key with her at all times. Don't label the key with your address or phone number in case it gets lost, and instruct her to have it in her hand when she arrives home. If she stands outside the door fumbling, someone may notice.
  • Tell your child never to enter the house if something looks suspect: A door is ajar, or a window is broken or open.
  • Have a good backup plan. If something appears awry, your child should have a "Plan B." Ask a reliable neighbor or relative to be on call for such emergencies until you get home.
  • Instruct your child to call you as soon as he gets into the house. That way, you'll know he's safe, and you can go over any details including homework, snacks, and visitors with him.
  • Your child should not let anyone into the house for any reason. Even if someone claims, "Your mom and dad told me to come get you," she should know to ask for a code word that you agreed to ahead of time.
  • Set up a list of emergency phone numbers and instructions for your youngster (the way you would for a sitter), and post it on the fridge.
  • Make sure your child knows basic first aid and fire safety, including how to use the 911system. He must know to give your full address and stay on the phone until the operator has all the details and tells him to hang up.

As you would with a regular babysitter, you need to establish some basic parameters with your child. How far from the house is she allowed to play? Can she use the computer, TV, and stereo, and for how long? Which friends, if any, are allowed to come over? Is she allowed to cook? Which appliances are safe for her to operate, and which snack foods are allowed? The more details you discuss ahead of time, the fewer problems you are likely to have later.

If you do allow your child to play in the neighborhood, provide her with a cell phone or pager and instruct her to return your calls -- pronto! As a final precaution, you may want to register your child's fingerprints with your local police department. Don't hesitate to let the police know the days and hours your child will be home alone.

Even if things seem to be going well after several weeks, you should check up on the situation periodically. Come home early one day and see what your son or daughter is really up to. Or ask a neighbor to check in occasionally. With good communication and organization, you and your child should achieve home-alone success.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.