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When is it safe to leave your child home alone?

Thursday, June 27, 2019

What age should a child be allowed to stay at home alone? This is a challenging decision for parents, especially when the school year ends. The age for leaving a child at home varies greatly from child to child because of a number of factors, including the child’s maturity and ability to handle responsibility.

According to Deborah Greenhouse, MD, Prisma Health Children’s Hospital–Midlands pediatrician with Palmetto Pediatric and Adolescent Clinic, a child younger than 10 years old should not be left home alone, even for a short period of time. At approximately 10 years old, a child who is responsible may be left for 30 minutes, but no longer than one hour. During this time, the child should be able to keep in contact with a parent.

“The decision to leave your child at home alone, even for a brief period, should be based on common sense. You need to establish a very well-defined set of ground rules.” Dr. Greenhouse suggests that parents do some role-playing activities with their child and ask them questions to find out how they would handle situations that might arise.

Here are some situations to consider when evaluating your child’s readiness to be alone:

  • Is your child comfortable with the idea of being home alone? If not, your child is not ready to be left alone.
  • Does your child understand basic safety issues?
  • Does your child know how to handle an emergency?
  • Does your child know basic first aid and where supplies are stored?
  • What would your child do if he spotted a stranger in the yard?
  • What would he do if someone knocked at the door?
  • What would he do if there was a fire?
  • What would he say to a caller who asked for you?
  • What would he do if he were locked out of the house?
  • What would he do if there was a power outage or a warning about serious weather?
  • Does your child know how to operate your home’s security system?
  • Will your child be responsible for younger siblings?
  • What will your child do if he or a sibling gets sick or injured?
  • Is there a trusted relative or neighbor nearby?
  • Does your child have the ability to contact you while you are away?
  • Can your child get himself a sandwich or a snack if necessary?
  • Are there firearms in the home and are they kept safely stored in a locked storage area with the ammunition locked in a different location? 

Some rules to establish may include:

  • Never let anyone in the house when a parent is not home.
  • Keep the doors locked and do not leave the house.
  • Never tell a caller that no one else is home.
  • Do not use the stove or the microwave when home alone.
  • In a house with a pool, no one goes near the pool unless an adult is present.
  • Guidelines for computer, television and video game use.

“You need to be convinced that your child will follow your rules. Your neighborhood, and the proximity of trusted neighbors or relatives, also is important,” said Greenhouse. “Also, not every home today still has a landline telephone. A child who is home alone needs to have a way to contact a parent or to call 911 in the event of an emergency. You should post emergency numbers for neighbors, relatives, doctors and the poison control hotline (Palmetto Poison Center, 800-222-1222).”

According to Safe Kids Worldwide, more than 3 million children aged 14 and under get hurt at home each year and more than 2,000 die from unintentional injuries in the home. Fire, suffocation, drowning, choking, falls, firearms and poisoning are among the leading causes of unintentional home injury or death for this age group.

Parents know their child’s maturity level, strengths and capabilities best. Deciding to leave your child home alone is a difficult decision and deserves careful deliberation and preparation. Talk with your pediatrician about your child’s age and readiness, and then start with small increments of time.

About Deborah Greenhouse, MD
Deborah Greenhouse, MD, is a private pediatrician with Palmetto Pediatric and Adolescent Clinic in Columbia. She and her husband, David Greenhouse, MD, have two daughters, ages 25and 22. Her interests include reading, hiking and gardening. She is a past president of the South Carolina Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and is the South Carolina Coordinator for the Pediatric Research in Office Settings Network.

About Prisma Health Children’s Hospital–Midlands
Prisma Health Children’s Hospital–Midlands is South Carolina’s first children's hospital and has more than 150,000 children’s visits each year. It offers more than 30 subspecialties to meet the unique health care needs of children and has central South Carolina's only Children’s Emergency Center. With more than 350 professionals who work exclusively with children, Prisma Health Children’s Hospital–Midlands has a team of highly skilled and trained experts unmatched by any hospital in the Midlands. Prisma Health Children’s Hospital–Midlands is the place to go for children's medical care, because the best care matters.

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