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Home alone — ready or not?

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When adolescents stay home without adult supervision, it can be a positive growth experience. To navigate the sometimes unsettling decision surrounding this responsibility, consider these 10 tips:

Maturity level. Child development experts agree, most kids are ready to stay home alone somewhere between the ages of 12 and 13, but there is no magical age. Since kids mature at different rates, evaluate your child on an individual basis. How independent and self-directed is he with regard to responsibilities such as getting homework and chores done, arriving at school on time, and asking for help when problems arise?

Desire to stay alone. Equally important is whether your child is willing to be home alone. If he expresses reservations or objections, hold off. Or, if there are other transitions going on in his life — a recent death, divorce, or relocation to a new home — wait until those adjustments have been made.

Safety suggestions. Consider your community’s safety, neighbor relationships, and peer influences. Do you live in a safe setting with trusted neighbors your child can go to for help in the event of an emergency? Are there peer influences in the community that cause some concern? Also address basic safety rules, such as what to do in the event of an emergency; how to handle basic first-aid; and precautions with electrical outlets, appliances, heating equipment, etc.

Rest assured with rules. Think of your child as his own sitter and pass along the same instructions and information you would give to a caretaker. Discuss house rules, write them out, and post them in a visible location, along with important phone numbers. Don’t assume he automatically knows your expectations. And remember, some rules when you are home, such as cooking and playing outside, will be significantly different when you are away.

Media guidelines. If you do not establish media guidelines, the television and computer may run continuously. Agree upon a time limit for TV and technology devices. Then, remind your child what is and isn’t permissible to view. If needed, put on filters to protect your kids.

Alternative activities. If you will be gone for an extended period of time, collaborate with your child about activities he can do to alleviate boredom and occupy his time: “What do you plan to do while I’m away?” If your child says she doesn’t know, suggest activities — art, music, creative writing, board games, etc. This may need to be an ongoing conversation to keep ideas fresh.

Ready him with role play. Play the “What if…” game to prepare your child for unexpected situations: “What if a delivery man comes to the door?” “There is a power outage?” “You come home from school and find a broken window?” Encourage him to come up with his own answers, but guide him to the right response if there’s a better choice. This builds confidence, tests his responses, and may cause him to think about the gravity of this responsibility — that it isn’t just fun and games.

Ease into it. If you have some reservations, start with 30-minute increments during the day while you run short errands or take a walk. As your child demonstrates readiness, stretch out the time. When you get home, talk about how things went.

Support from a distance. If your child is staying home alone every day due to your work schedule, lend emotional support. On occasion, leave notes and special surprises to reassure him of your love and concern, and remind him you trust things will go well and he can handle the responsibility. Also, call regularly to check in and say “hello.”

Ongoing communication. If you have already established an open line of communication, your child will be more likely to talk about problems that come up, and you will get a sense if things aren’t going well. If he is acting differently — not making eye contact, using a different tone of voice, or something seems to be bothering him — follow up until the issue is resolved.

At first, it may be hard to leave your child without adult supervision, but with time, it should get easier. And you may find that, just as with other steps toward independence, when you let them go, you see them grow.

Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.

Updated 4:57 pm, July 9, 2018
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