(Posted 2020 March; Updated 2021 September)
For many parents, deciding how their children should spend their time when schools are closed can be a challenge. A big part of this decision is considering if a child is ready to be left at home alone.
Parents may not realize that most states, including Virginia, don’t have laws dictating when or for how long children can be unsupervised. Parents are ultimately responsible for making decisions about their children’s safety. However, parents can’t rely on age alone in making these decisions, because every child matures differently.
To help you with the decision, the Department of Family Services offers some suggestions to help you assess your child’s readiness. Consider a child’s physical, mental, developmental, and emotional well-being, and his or her willingness to stay home alone.
Ask yourself, “Is my child ready?” Does he or she:
- Understand instructions and follow important rules?
- Know how to ask for help from friends, neighbors, and police?
- Make good decisions when away from you or other adults?
- Know when to contact you and 911 when needed?
- Feel comfortable and confident about staying home alone?
In addition, you may want to consider the circumstances at home and their impact on your child’s safety and success, such as:
- How long will your child be left home alone at one time? Will it be during the day, evening, or night?
- Will your child need to fix a meal? If so, is there food that can be prepared without using a stove to minimize the risk of fires or burns?
- How often will your child be expected to care for him or herself?
- How many children are being left home alone? Children who seem ready to stay home alone may not necessarily be ready to care for younger siblings.
- Is your home safe and free of hazards? Hazards can include nonworking smoke alarms; improperly stored cleaning chemicals, firearms, and medication; unsecured furniture, pools, unlocked alcohol, etc.
- How safe is your neighborhood? Is there a high incidence of crime?
- Does your child know how/remember to lock or secure the doors? Does your child have a key to your home or a plan if he or she gets locked out?
- Are there other adults nearby the home (e.g., friend, family, or neighbor) who you trust and can offer immediate assistance if there is an emergency or your child becomes fearful?
- Can you or a trusted, nearby adult be easily contacted by the child?
Leaving Your Teen Home Alone Overnight
No child or young teen should be left alone for a long period of time, such as overnight. We recommend that parents hold off on letting their child stay home alone overnight until their late teens, but that decision may depend on the maturity of the child. A rebellious teen may need more supervision than a responsible 11-year-old. The following questions could be helpful in deciding:
- Can your teen resist peer pressure?
- Is your teen likely to be fearful?
- How well does your teen follow the rules?
In general, the best advice is don't leave children home alone until they can be responsible. Check out Fairfax County's Child Supervision Guidelines for more information about knowing when your child is ready. In addition, there are some steps Fairfax County suggests to prepare your child to be left at home.
For more practical parenting advice like this, the Parenting Education Programs welcomes you to register for our upcoming classes. Join us for more information about positive and effective ways parents can interact with their children at every age and stage of development. We would love to hear from you. If you have questions or feedback about the topic in this article, send an email to us.
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