If you haven’t seen the 1990s holiday hit “Home Alone,” it’s highly recommended. It stars Macaulay Culkin who plays Kevin, an 8-year-old boy who is mistakenly left home alone when his family flies to Paris for vacation. (We have no idea how that happened, but ok). Whether he was fending off thieves or polishing off the family’s supply of hot fudge, Kevin learned to care for himself and the home while his parents were away.
Of course, this isn’t how your child will learn. But leaving your child at home for the day or even an hour can be a very difficult decision for parents the first go-around. Shockingly, some states don’t have a minimum age that you can legally leave your child home alone, which leaves the decision up to you – the parent. How do you know if your child is ready to be home alone?
Here are some things to consider when making your decision:
Know the Laws
First, check with your state department of child safety or department of human services to find if there is a minimum age requirement for children to be left home alone. Many states, like Arizona and California, don’t have minimum age requirements, but other states like Colorado (age 12) Maryland (age 8), Illinois (age 14) and Oregon (age 10) do have requirements.
Is Your Child Emotionally Ready?
“Because every child is developmentally different and in different stages, you need to know if they are emotionally ready to handle being home alone and know what to do in case of emergency,” says Bahar Altaha, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health. “Staying home alone may be no issue for your 10-year-old but terrifying for your 12-year-old.”
That said, Dr. Altaha does recommend you do not leave your child alone until they are at least 8 years old. Kids between the ages of 8-10 shouldn’t be left for more than an hour-and-a-half. Kids ages 11-13 may be left alone up to three hours but not late at night.
Is Your Child Physically Ready?
“Before you consider leaving your child home, make sure they are fully capable of taking care of themselves in the home and know what to do if there is an emergency,” Dr. Altaha says.
Dr. Altaha says typically you’ll know because your child will exhibit these signs:
- Makes good decisions and is responsible and trustworthy
- Shows awareness of others and surroundings
- Knows how to make calls/FaceTime and knows important phone numbers, like parents/guardians and 9-1-1.
- Can make simple snacks
- Knows basic first aid
- Knows what to do if there is a fire, injury or emergency
Devise a Plan
It may be exciting as a parent to have newfound freedom to run errands by yourself, but make sure you set up a game plan. Your child should know what to do if someone comes to the door and what they should do if there is an emergency.
Before leaving your child for several hours, Dr. Altaha suggests a gradual approach, so your child can adjust to being home alone and you can work out any problems that may arise. Begin slowly with 30 minutes to one hour and gradually build up.
If your child is around 11 years old, you can also register them for a babysitting class, where they can learn CPR and first aid and earn their certifications. This will help instill confidence and personal growth.
This is an exciting time for you and your child – it helps your child exhibit their independence and restores some of your personal freedom. But, if your child is exhibiting any anxiety or distress, give it time. If the stress continues for several months and impedes growth and development, speak to a Banner Health expert. They will be happy to help you navigate the issue.