Ask the Expert: Is it legal to leave children 'home alone' over the holidays?

The NSPCC says no child should ever be left at home alone if they don't feel comfortable with it

Q: DURING the summer holidays I'll need to leave my children, aged 11 and 13, home alone while I'm at work. Is this legal, and could I leave them overnight occasionally as well?

A: Chris Cloke, NSPCC head of safeguarding in communities, says: "We can understand the difficulties that parents face during the school holidays, and of course, all year round.

"As odd as it may seem, there isn't a set legal age for leaving children home alone. The rate at which children mature really varies so it would be almost impossible to come up with a one-size fits all law. It therefore feels most appropriate to leave the choice to parents, who know their children best.

"That said, this doesn't mean there are no laws at all on leaving children home alone. If a parent or carer has placed their child at risk by leaving them, they can be prosecuted for neglect.

"At the NSPCC we believe no child should ever be left at home alone if they don't feel comfortable with it, regardless of their age. Usually, children under the age of 12 are rarely mature enough to cope in an emergency, so shouldn't be left for a long time, and children under the age of 16 shouldn't be left alone overnight.

"We recommend parents talk to their children about how they feel about being left at home without them. It can be really useful to listen to any worries they have and ask what could put them at ease.

"Once you've had a conversation, if you both agree and decide they're ready it can also help to put your mind at ease by making some final checks. Think about if there's a spare set of keys, whether your children have a way of contacting you, and who lives nearby that they trust and could contact for help. If you're leaving a younger child with an older sibling, think about what may happen if they were to have a falling out – would they both be safe?

"If one of your children has additional needs, we recommend considering these when leaving them at home alone or with an older sibling. Our guidance is that generally no child should be left in the care of a young person or sibling under the age of 16.

"It makes sense to err on the side of caution. In the long holidays, rather than leave a child home alone, is it possible to make arrangements with families, friends and neighbours so childcare is shared? Also consider play schemes and holiday clubs.

"Ultimately, this is your decision based on what's best for your family, and the NSPCC website has lots of advice to help you. We even have a quiz to help you start the conversation with your children.

"Anyone who wants to talk this through can contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000."

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