Home Alone: How to Tell If Your Child is Ready

August 1, 2019

by rebecca stewart

In the many stages and phases of parenting, some of the most highly anticipated ones are the self-sufficiency milestones. Like, it’s AMAZING when your kiddo can get breakfast for themselves on a Saturday morning. Forget potty training, when your kid has total bathroom independence, now that’s cause for celebration! Likewise, when your child can stay home alone for a spell, it opens the door to things like a vacation-esque trip to the store.

Unlike those other milestones, the question of when you’ve hit it has many shades of gray. It’s not about reaching a certain age or some clear, neon sign indicating that you’ve officially arrived. There are a whole variety of things to consider before taking the leap. To help us understand the intricacies of what it looks like when reaching this milestone, we turned to Michelle Davis, MS, LCPC, Licensed Therapist at Northwest Counseling to walk us through everything from how to know if your child is ready to what guidelines your family should have in place. 

The Cues

We asked Michelle what cues parents can look for in their kids that indicate their child is ready to stay home alone.

First ask, “Does my child know how to care for themselves?”
  • Can they get a snack?
  • Can they keep track of a key or remember a code?
  • Can they easily open doors and windows?
  • Can they tell time or leave a message?
What is your kid like?
  • Are they good problem-solvers?
  • Is your child an ask for permission type or a beg for forgiveness type?
  • Does your child generally follow the rules?
  • How does your child react in stressful situations?
How does your child feel about being home alone?
  • Are they confident in their abilities?
  • Do they handle boredom well?
  • Are you leaving more than one child alone at home? (Do they get along?)
Is your neighborhood safe?

Baby Steps

As you’re starting to ask if the time is right, there are baby steps that families can take while they’re determining if their child is ready for this responsibility. Michelle’s recommendations:

Start small. Like a quick trip to the store or coffee shop – no more than 20 minutes.

Upon return:

Check in with your child:
  • How did they feel while you were gone?
  • Discuss any worries that may have popped up in your absence.

This check-in, says Michelle, is an opportunity for you to address any issues you hadn't thought of or didn't realize would be an issue for your child. From this starting point, depending on your child's comfort, lengthen the time the child spends alone, and continue to check in with their feelings.

Note: Tackle daytime home alone experiences before venturing to evening hours. I think we all know the dark can send imaginations running wild.  

The General Guidelines

Ahead of testing the staying home alone waters, guidelines and expectations need to be put in place and clearly voiced.

Establishing Family Rules: Questions to consider:
  • Do you want your child to answer the door?
  • Do you want your child to leave the house while you are gone? (What circumstances would leaving the house be a necessity? For example, in cases of emergency).
  • Is it okay to have friends over? (Any old friend, some friends, a friend?)
  • With various devices available (tablets, watches, smartphones), set the rules for appropriate and acceptable usage ahead of time.
  • If your child is coming home alone after school, establish who they will check in with upon arriving home.
Make sure someone is always available for the child to reach.
  • Which household appliances/utensils are okay to use, which are off limits?
The more you know…
  • Does your child know who to call if they need assistance?
  1. Do the people in your child’s circle (able to help in case of emergency or concern) know when your child is home alone?
  • If your child is going to be home alone after school, do they know where/how to get snacks?
  • Does your child have a way to contact others? (With landlines becoming less prevalent, this is an important consideration).
  • Is there a list of important numbers/people that your child might need to contact up in the home?
  • Does your child know how to take care of a cut or handle bleeding?

Other Considerations

Michelle shares that while on vacation in Canada, she read about a case where a mother left her 8-year-old home alone after school from 3-5pm. The Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that 8 was too young to be left home alone. While some states do have laws stating what age is appropriate to be home alone – with ages ranging from 6 to 14 – Montana has no such law, leaving the decision to the parents.

With that in mind, Michelle adds that if leaving your child home alone is distressing for either you or your child, you should wait. “You want to create an environment for your child to be successful, and as parents, we are stressed enough. Don’t add to the burden unnecessarily!”

You know your child best. We all know that each child is different. Some can handle this kind of responsibility with ease, while for others, it's just too much. And that's okay, too. Maybe you try it and decide you need to put a pin in it for a while. Maybe you meet somewhere in the middle and employ a responsible teenager to "hang out" with your middle-aged, not-quite-ready-to-fly-solo, too-old-for-a-babysitter kid. You know best. Trust your instincts; take the baby steps, have the guidelines in place; when they're ready, you'll know. Communication is key. 

Originally printed in the August 2019 issue of Simply Family Magazine

Never miss an issue, check out SFM's digital editions here! 

related articles: