Home alone: Strategies for keeping kids safe after school

Melissa Erickson More Content Now

A child’s safety is first on a parent’s mind, and while kids are supervised at school, many make their way to and from on their own, and plenty are by themselves in the hours after school until a parent gets home from work.

More than 15 million students are alone and unsupervised between 3 and 6 p.m, the peak hours for juvenile crime and a time of concern for working parents, according to the Afterschool Alliance.

“Parents faced with needing to have a latch-key kid probably experience many different types of emotions — fear, anxiety, guilt. There is not an easy answer as to absolute guidelines for if and when children can be trusted to be on their own,” said Dr. Nerissa Bauer, assistant professor of pediatrics, Indiana University School of Medicine.

What to do first

Few states have specific laws, and most offer guidelines, although typically the recommendation is that no children younger than 12 should be left alone due to their cognitive development and ability to do self-care, she said.

“Even before you start talking to your child about leaving him or her alone, a parent needs to think about the child and take into consideration a child’s developmental level,” said Ellen Braaten, director of Harvard Medical School’s Learning and Emotional Assessment Program.

Consider the following:

n The physical and emotional maturity level of the child.

n ADHD or other behavioral conditions (for example: anxiety) that may make parents uneasy leaving their child unsupervised.

n Child’s level of self-confidence.

n Child’s level of independence in self-care duties.

Make sure children know their full name, address, phone number, your full name, work number and any alternate numbers to reach you.

Make sure children know how to dial 911 and under what circumstances and what to say.

Safety strategies

If you are leaving your child home alone, it’s a good idea to tell him why, especially if it is a change from having a parent or baby sitter at home, or a change from what the child was used to, Bauer said.

“This will allow children to understand the change and ask questions. Parents should calmly discuss the situation, in child-friendly terms, and allow the child to ask questions,” she said.

“Try mentally preparing the child in advance and starting to introduce the concept ahead of time, and be willing to discuss and review often so that the child feels comfortable.”

Some after-school safety strategies from Braaten:

n Make sure children know how to use the key and where to keep it so it is not lost or on display to strangers.

n Consider leaving an extra key with a neighbor or friend.

n Tell children never to talk in public areas about walking home alone or being home alone.

n Make sure they know how to react if they feel uncomfortable or feel they are being followed.

n Have them practice unlocking and locking the house door to make sure they are secure.

n Role-play different scenarios so you all feel comfortable that the child knows the basics and back-up plan in case emergencies arise.

n Review the rules about answering the door or telephone if home alone, what to say and not to say.

n Make sure to lock away all poisons and firearms.

n Discuss parental expectations about watching TV, playing on the computer, accessing websites, etc. Parents should use parental controls to restrict access to adult content on cable, TV and computers.

n Visual schedules or checklists about routines are great reminders for all children, no matter what age.

n Parents should review what the child did (homework and so on) and use these opportunities to praise appropriate behaviors and discuss expectations if the child forgot to do homework or did not lock the door. It is always good to check in about the experience.