When Is It Time to Leave Your Child at Home Alone?

Young boy sitting on sofa at home using tablet computer whilst watching television

Have you experienced that dread-inducing feeling of a babysitter cancelling or school closing because of inclement weather? In that moment, you might think about leaving your child home alone.

But many factors should go into your decision, says clinical psychologist Carolyn Ievers-Landis, PhD. Not every child is responsible enough – or ready – to stay home alone.

Unlike some states, Ohio law has no minimum age at which children may be left home alone. Parents looking for guidance should instead consider a number of factors before leaving kids home alone.

“We worry a lot about younger kids staying home alone, but I urge parents to think about teenagers too," Dr. Ievers-Landis says. "The highest incidence of unsafe behavior – like sexual behaviors and drug use – happen right after school.”

Factors to Consider

Dr. Ievers-Landis urges parents to consider these four things before leaving their children at home alone:

  1. Weight issues. Children left alone are prone to snack, and the temptation of being around food can be hard to resist. If they end up eating that entire bag of chips, it can make them feel like failures.
  2. Siblings who fight. Without an adult in the house, it can get worse between kids who argue – and worse – without someone to run interference.
  3. Anxiety. Being alone makes some kids stressed and worried.
  4. Decision-making skills. If your child is impulsive or lacks common sense and problem-solving skills, they aren't likely to develop these skills when left alone.

Prepare Your Child

Be conservative in the decision whether to leave your child home alone, Dr. Ievers-Landis says. Then, if you decide to do it, use these four activities to help prepare you and your child:

  1. Role-play safety situations. Make sure your child knows all your emergency contacts, and walk through what to do in case of a fire or emergency.
    “The first time your child uses a fire extinguisher should not be when there’s an actual fire,” she says. “It’s so much better to play out these things than talk about them hypothetically.”
  2. Do a trial run. Allow your child to build confidence in their ability by taking brief outings for short periods of time.
  3. Set ground rules. Together, you and your child should list expectations, such as whether friends are allowed over, and details about when and how often to communicate with each other.
  4. Use technology. Make use of smart technology, including:
    • Security cameras that let you view what’s going on in your house from your phone
    • Video doorbells that let you and your kids see who’s at the door
    • Electronic padlocks that only you can open

In general, it's best to minimize the amount of time your child is home alone, Dr. levers-Landers say. Instead, find and use after-school activities and resources at recreation centers and libraries with extended hours that offer a safe, supervised setting.

Carolyn Ievers-Landis, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. You can request an appointment with Dr. Ievers-Landis or any other doctor online.

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