Home alone

oost parents are faced with the dilemma of whether to leave a child home alone because they need to work late or want to go out and don't have a babysitter. It's against the law to leave a child younger than 14 at home alone, but even when they're of age, you do need to do some preparation.

Leaving a child home alone for the first time can be stressful for all of you. Your 14-year-old may have assured you that they’re perfectly comfortable with it, but the minute you walk out the door it’s a different story – or you may feel nervous the whole time, hoping they can cope if there’s an emergency.

Here are a few tips for preparing your family for home alone time.

  • As a family, talk about leaving your child or children home alone and work out what everyone feels comfortable with. Is daytime better than night-time? What length of time is acceptable to everyone? Make sure the whole family is clear on the boundaries.

  • Have a few practice runs. Maybe, the first time, you could just go out shopping for an hour and then come home, to get your child used to it.

  • Be aware that not all 14-year-olds are able to look after other children and be home alone. It might be too much responsibility to place on them to expect them to babysit as well, so make sure you’ve covered this with your oldest child and spent some time helping him or her know how to deal with the other kids, should they play up. Some families agree to text each other every hour in the beginning just as a check-up procedure to make everyone more comfortable.

  • Make sure you have a list of numbers clearly displayed for your child to see. This list should include home and mobile phone numbers for close relatives – such as grandparents, aunts and uncles who are nearby, family friends who live nearby, and neighbours you know well – then emergency numbers, such as 111 for fire, police and ambulance, your family doctor, and also these 24-hour helpline numbers: PlunketLine, 0800 933 922; Healthline, 0800 611 116; Child, Youth and Family, 0508 FAoILY (0508 326 459).

  • Make sure you run through some emergency scenarios. What should your child do if they smell smoke, if a stranger knocks on the door or if someone calls for you while you’re gone?

  • Establish some ground rules. Some parents ask their children not to cook if they’re not there, and instead they leave meals prepared. Is your child allowed to have friends over, and if so, how many? Some parents also tell their child not to open the door to strangers, and when answering the phone, to say that their parents are busy, rather than revealing they’re absent. Also be aware that children can sometimes mention they’re alone when social networking, so make sure they are aware of why they should avoid this.

  • The Christchurch earthquake is a good reminder for Kiwi families to stock up on emergency supplies. If you’re out while a civil emergency occurs, will your child or children have enough food and water as well as torches, radios and so on? Do they know what to do if there is an earthquake, flood or tsunami?

  • Even though your child is 14, it does pay to childproof the home by putting medicines in a locked cabinet and alcohol or tobacco hidden away. Your child might be trustworthy, but their friends and any younger children they are babysitting might not.

  • If your 14-year-old is struggling with home alone time, don’t pressure them.

All children develop at different rates and it may take some time for them to get the confidence to do it. Instead, find an older teenager or a family friend who could come over and stay with your child until they are more able. Don’t call this person a babysitter, just tell your child they are there to keep them company. Your child might also feel better if they have a good friend with them while you are out – but do check the friend’s parents know you won’t be there.

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