Take one teenager, add one empty home and what do you have? A recipe for disaster, say some child development experts. Give an inch and many teens will take advantage of their freedom by breaking the rules, partying with friends, gorging on junk food, spending hours in front of the TV, playing video games, or otherwise misbehaving.
But lots of parents are able to trust their teens to behave appropriately without adult supervision. And when parents trust their children enough to leave them home alone, they seize an opportunity to let their kids grow into responsible, independent adults. After all, in just a few years your teen may be living in a college dorm or starting a career - all without your careful oversight.
So how do you know if your teen is mature enough to stay home alone? Start by asking yourself the following questions:
- Is your teen nervous or afraid of staying home alone?
- Are you comfortable leaving your child home alone?
- How safe is your neighborhood?
- Is your child sensible, responsible and trustworthy?
- Does your teen tend to make good decisions, follow directions, and take responsibility for daily tasks like homework and chores?
- Does your child know how to use the stove and other appliances?
- Does your teenager understand the dangers of opening the door for strangers or telling a caller that their parents are away?
- Is your teen comfortable contacting you if there is a problem or if they made a mistake?
- Do you have friends, family members or neighbors you can count on if your child needs help?
Most experts recommend considering these questions when your child is around 11 or 12 years old, and only when they begin to push for more independence. Of course, some younger children will be mature enough to stay home alone and some older teens still can’t be trusted. Keep in mind that some states have a minimum age for leaving children unsupervised, so call your local Department of Social Services before making a final decision.
Setting Ground Rules
If you decide your teen is ready to stay home alone, gradually start leaving them alone for 30-minute intervals and then build up to longer periods of time. Ask how your child would handle different scenarios that may arise and make sure they know how to reach you as well as neighbors, emergency services and other resources in case something happens.
Experts also suggest having emergency evacuation and fire safety plans in place and teaching your child basic first aid, though surveys show that roughly 25 percent of parents leave their children home alone without adequate guidance about safety.
Next, set up a few ground rules. For example, instruct your teen not to answer the door in your absence and discuss how to tell anyone who calls that parents aren’t available. If your child is fairly young, talk about which appliances are okay to use and whether TV, Internet and video games are acceptable pastimes without parental supervision.
Also decide whether your child can have friends over or leave the house, and whether prior permission is required. Because teens fare best with structure, make sure you offer some ideas about what should be done while you’re gone, such as homework, reading or chores.
As with all rules, you should decide ahead of time what the consequences will be for breaking them. Then be sure to follow through with the consequences if a rule is broken and take some time before letting your child stay home alone again.
If you don’t trust your child to stay home alone or if your teen is rebellious and out of control, you may need to get help. There are day treatment centers as well as alternative camps for teens, wilderness programs and private boarding schools that will provide the structure, activities, therapy and positive peer environment that your teen needs to grow into a responsible adult.
If you’re considering leaving your teen home alone, the final decision should be based on what you feel is best for your child’s development. While you don’t want to miss out on a valuable growth experience, you and your teen both have to be ready for new responsibilities. With a little guidance and preparation, your teen will be ready to prove that they are capable of exercising good judgment and are worthy of your trust.
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