Family & Parenting

Should you leave your child home alone during the summer holidays?

There's no legal age a child can be left home alone, but it's illegal to put them at risk. Lisa Salmon talks to the NSPCC for tips on how to leave kids alone safely

Some children will embrace the freedom of being left home alone... but it's essential for parents to carefully consider how to approach this step to independence safely.

DURING the school summer holidays, many parents - and particularly those that work - are faced with the dilemma of whether they can safely leave their children home alone.

There's no legal age a child can be left home alone, but it's against the law to leave them alone if it puts them at risk, explains Helen Westerman, head of local campaigns at the NSPCC (nspcc.org.uk).

"A child who doesn't feel comfortable shouldn't be left alone," she stresses, pointing out that as every child matures differently, it would be impossible to have a one size fits all law.

As well as making the big home alone decision, an additional dilemma for parents is whether it's safe to let children go out to play unsupervised, and Westerman says: "Lots of parents will be thinking about whether it's safe to leave their children at home safely, and if they're old enough to leave the house unsupervised.

"This can be a really tricky decision for parents and carers to make as it will differ from child to child.

"As well as navigating if a child is ready to be left alone, lots of parents will also find managing work alongside the school break really challenging, particularly in light of the soaring child costs and the cost of living crisis, which is putting additional pressure on families."

Westerman says the charity has been contacted more than 21,000 times over the past four years about children being left unsupervised, with nearly half of the contacts taking place during the summer months.

"As children get older, it's common for them to want more freedom and learn to be independent," she says.

"This is an important part of growing up, but we know there can be a lot to think about for parents. As every child is different, we recommend building up their independence at their pace and checking in with them to make sure they feel safe."

Here, Westerman shares tips for parents and carers to help them make the right decisions about their children staying home alone or going out unsupervised over the summer...

1. ARE THEY READY TO BE LEFT HOME ALONE?

Parents need to weigh up how their child will deal with being unsupervised for any length of time, and particularly how they'll cope if something goes wrong.

"Think about if they can deal with risks, will they behave responsibly, will they be safe?" asks Westerman. "And perhaps most importantly, how does your child feel about this idea?"

2. TAKE SENSIBLE PRECAUTIONS

If you decide to leave your child alone, leave a spare set of keys out and make sure they can get food or use the bathroom if they need to.

"Consider if there's anything that could hurt them and how you could reduce that risk," advises Westerman.

3. NEVER LEAVE BABIES OR YOUNG CHILDREN ALONE

It's important to remember that a baby or young child should never be left alone, not even for a few minutes, whether they're asleep or awake, stresses Westerman.

"Children under the age of 12 are rarely mature enough to cope in an emergency and should not be left at home alone for a long period."

The charity also recommends that children under the age of 16 aren't left alone overnight, and if a child has additional needs, these should be considered when leaving them at home alone or with an older sibling.

4. KNOW THE FACTS IF THEY GO OUT UNSUPERVISED

If your child is going out alone, make sure you know where they want to go and what they want to do, who they'll be with and how far they will travel.

"This will help you make the right decision," explains Westerman.

5. MAKE SURE THEY HAVE THE RIGHT PHONE NUMBERS

If your child is staying home alone, make sure they have a parent or carer's number and have a trusted adult in mind that they could go to in person in an emergency.

"If they're going out alone, make sure they know a trusted adult's full name and address, and have two trusted adults' phone numbers," advises Westerman.

6. GO THROUGH DIFFERENT SCENARIOS WITH YOUR CHILD

Talk to your child early on about scenarios they might face and how to stay safe - ask them what they would do and how they think they'd feel.

"If they're going to be home alone for example, ask them what they'd do if they hurt themselves or if a stranger knocks on the door," suggests Westerman.

"If they're going out alone, you might want to ask them what they'd do if someone asks them to do something they're not comfortable with. "

7. SET CLEAR BOUNDARIES

Make sure your child is well aware of the rules when they're unsupervised, both in the home or if they go out alone, so both you and they know how they should behave when you're not around.

"It's a good idea to agree on some house or outside rules that suit their maturity before you leave them alone," suggests Wetsterman.

"Give your child a chance to build their independence by building your trust. If they keep to rules and boundaries you set, you'll feel more confident letting them do more on their own."

The NSPCC has teamed up with Blakemore Retail for the NSPCC's Home or Out Alone campaign (nspcc.org.uk/keeping-children-safe/in-the-home/home-alone-quiz), which offers a quiz to help parents make the right decision about leaving their children at home safely or letting them leave the house unsupervised.

If you're worried about a child contact the NSPCC helpline on 0808 800 5000 or email help@nspcc.org.uk.

Family & Parenting