The idea of leaving your kids all by themselves is a terrifying thought for most parents, especially the first time you make the leap. While a lot can go wrong without adult supervision, being on one’s own is also an essential step for your child’s independence. By having the right conversations as a family unit, leaving your kid alone might not be as scary as you thought it was, according to licensed clinical psychologist Jessica Hunter of The Child & Family Counseling Group in Fairfax. Hunter, who is a mother to twin 8-year-olds, has been working as a psychologist for about 12 years and specializes in couples and families. She has also done extensive work with teenagers.
In the United States, every state varies with how they delve into the family lives of residents. While some states, such as Maryland, have a legal age limit for leaving your child unattended, Virginia sets guidelines that should be followed for deciding the appropriate age. Fairfax County, for example, states that no child should be left alone under any circumstances at the age of 8 or younger but starting at 9, a child “may be ready to be left unsupervised up to 1.5 hours during daylight and early evening hours.”
“I can start by saying that not only has this been debated in my personal life because our children are turning 9, but we hear this from our actual community,” Hunter says. “It’s pretty powerful.”
There is a huge developmental milestone that lasts from ages 8 to 10 and that is where the majority of the debate of when to leave kids alone stems from, according to Hunter. While age is important, it is not as essential as the child’s level of independence, ability to understand a crisis situation and the individual’s opinion on the situation.
“Generally, when kids hit the age of 10, cognitively they are able to handle conflict,” Hunter says. “Their emotional development changes, and those fears that peak at age 8 start to subside. They understand what steps to take when things don’t seem right.”
While Hunter’s kids are almost 9 years old, she believes they are not quite ready to be left on their own. Hunter recommends the parents have essential conversations as a unit together before making a final decision for when their child is ready, including, “Are they responsible with homework?” and “Do they complete simple chores you ask them to do? Do they follow directions?”
“You have to see if your child is responsible,” Hunter says. “I have a girl and a boy and it’s an ongoing experiment because they are very different human beings. Their levels of responsibility at the same age are so incredibly different, as well as their maturity.”
Another key aspect of the decision process is waiting for your child to make the initial choice and vocalize that they are prepared to be on their own. If something really did happen while the child was by himself, he needs to understand it wasn’t his fault, according to Hunter. It’s also important for parents to only leave their children for short periods of times, not full days, to lower any risks.
“I think by age 10 you have a greater understanding that not everything is on your shoulders,” Hunter explains. “I would say at age 12, children definitely reach a maturity level where they have an awareness of the world and a sense of responsibility for other individuals. They act like a big kid, because they take pride in that new title.”
For more information about preparing for leaving your child at home, click here.
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