Flying solo

August 30, 2010

Like many families today, both parents may work, which leaves the dilemma of where a child stays in the hours after school is out and before parents return.

Many schools offer after–hours programs for middle school students that include organized activities like games and computer time, but that also may provide mini–courses in math, computer skills, trades or languages.

However, when those classes are over, a child may still face having to be alone in the apartment or house. And, leaving your child home alone, even when he or she is a teenager, is a big responsibility that shouldn’t be entered into lightly.

"Children and teens thrive on structure and they want safety," says Pete Stavinoha, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Children’s Medical Center. "When you give them adult responsibilities too soon, that’s when bad choices come in."

To help prepare your child or teen for solo stays at home, Stavinoha suggests outlining expectations and making them very clear to your child. "You’re preparing them for the future. You can’t just close your eyes and cross your fingers."

Because experts agree that age isn’t necessarily a precursor to responsible behavior, here are a few guidelines that may help you determine what’s right at what age:

Teens 13–14

  • Home alone means just that, home – alone. Experts say friends shouldn’t be allowed over and your teen shouldn’t be left to care for younger siblings. The sudden "freedom," coupled with younger brothers and sisters’ resistance to an older siblings’ authority can be super–stressful. It’s best to reserve this situation until your teen is more comfortable being home alone.
  • A couple of hours is long enough for teens to fly solo – with periodic check–ins made with you via the home phone (cell phones can’t guarantee your child is at home like the land line can).
  • Answering the door should be off limits, as teens at this age don’t typically have the judgment to recognize potential danger.
  • Institute a list of chores that need to be performed, which is a win all around – your teen proves responsibility and there’s less downtime to seek out trouble.

Teens 15–16

  • Teens can begin staying at home, unsupervised, for longer periods of time, but they still need to check in with you frequently.
  • Friends (of the same sex) can come over and your teen can begin watching after siblings (but not while friends are over).
  • If a family friend drops by (make a list of approved people), it is OK for your teen to answer the door. But, as your child develops more confidence and is more at ease at home, he or she may be tempted to let his or her guard down. To test your child’s "safety skills," ask a well–known neighbor or coworker to swing by. This will give you a good idea about how your teen is acting and reacting while you’re away.

Teens 17–18

  • At this age, if your teen has proven to be responsible and trustworthy, there’s no need to check in with you.
  • While it may be tempting to leave your teen unattended for a weekend, even if he or she has to stay behind for work, experts say it’s not a good idea. Instead, have your child stay with a friend or arrange to have a relative join your child at the house while you’re gone.