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Parent and Family Guide

Children “on their own” are school-age children who regularly take care of themselves during some part of the day, usually before and/or after school. Children are left on their own for a variety of reasons and in all types of families. Learning to be alone is a part of growing up. You can help your child by teaching them basic self-help and safety skills. When is a child ready to be On Their Own? There is no single answer to this question; no magical age or single condition that means a child is ready. You, as a parent, know how well your child handles responsibility, follows directions, uses good judgment, and feels ok home alone. Answering the questions from the “On Their Own & Ok Parent and Family Checklist” may help you decide if your child is ready and mature enough. Your child may be ready to spend an hour alone while you shop but not be ready to be alone every day after school. “Is my child ready to spend 45 minutes alone before school on weekdays?” is a very different question than “Is my child ready to be alone after school until I can get home at 8:00 pm?” If you decide that your child is not ready you can look for other options in your community. (See the Linn County Resources tab) When you think your child is ready consider a few trial runs. Leave your child alone for a short time while shopping or visiting a neighbor. Be sure to talk with your child after the experience and listen carefully for their feelings. Were they excited to give it a try or do you hear words that make you think they were fearful or unsure? If your child is afraid or not able to make good decisions, the child may not be ready for being on his or her own. Find opportunities to help your child learn new skills so they feel confident about being alone.

Communication

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Keeping Communication Lines Open

If the signs indicate that the child can handle the responsibility, be ready and open to discuss whatever comes up. Take time to ask: “What did you do when you got home from school today?” What was the best thing you did today?”, “How did things go while I was out?” Joining your child in an activity is also a good way to have conversations. Try playing a board game or ball with a child to give them a chance to share with you.

Remember

  1. If parents feel positive about their child being alone, their children are more likely to feel positive.

  2. Parents who express a lot of concerns may keep their children from talking about their own feelings.

  3. Rules and directions are important but they mean more if you explain the reason for them.

  4. Saying things often like, “Are you sure you’ll be okay all by yourself? I worry about you,” may make the child more fearful. It may be better to give a hug or say “Hi! I’m really glad to see you, I missed you today.”

Suggestions for Parents

  • Be dependable. If you say you’ll be home at 5:30 and don’t arrive until 6:45, it creates a very stressful situation for your child. If you must be late, call and let the child know why and when you will arrive.

  • Call, text or send your child a quick email to remind them you care.

  • Involve children in decisions and discussions that affect them.

  • Encourage children to express a problem clearly and directly.

  • Encourage children to express feelings using statements like. “I feel….”

  • Explain to the child the reasons for leaving him or her alone. Include the reasons why you are working and why other arrangements are not possible or desirable or feasible.

  • When possible, a visit to the parent(s)’ workplace can help children visualize where their parents are and convey a sense of travel time.

  • If leaving more than one child at home, make sure all children know who is in charge and what to do it they disagree about something.

Fears

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When children are on their own, it is not unusual for both children and parents to experience fears.

Children may find ways to deal with fear until parents come home. They may show fear by:  
  • turning on the television as soon as they arrive home to drown out scary noises

  • turning on all the lights in the house

  • conducting routine security checks: doors, windows, closets, under beds

  • using the phone: calling parents often or spending long hours on the phone with friends for comfort and companionship

  • hiding in places they feel safe such as, bathrooms, under beds, in closets

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Some activities such as checking doors and turning on the television may be good ideas but watch for behaviors that seem excessive. It may be hard for your child to talk about their fears but daily stress and worry are bad for children. If you know about your child’s fears you can work to help them feel more in control of the situation. If they know what to do in a difficult situation they may feel less anxious about things that may happen. Take time to learn about your child’s routine when left alone and be aware of changes in children’s moods. Depression may indicate a fear of being alone or feeling helpless or unloved. Children may be sad and uninterested in activities or exhibit very aggressive behaviors. Other indicators may be overeating, complaints of boredom, fatigue, and sleeping after school.

Safety Skills

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Parents worry if their children will know what to do if something happens when they’re on their own. What if someone comes to the door? What if there was an accident? Or the power goes off? These are things that you can manage by teaching your child personal safety skills. Over time your child will build confidence about taking care of themselves. Don’t forget that growing up and becoming independent is a long process- teach them gradually rather than all at once. Remember that children learn best by doing, so instead of telling, help them practice these skills.

Privacy

It is a good idea to teach your child not to share information about being alone or other personal information. If they carry a house key, it’s a good idea to keep it out of sight. If a key is located at home they should not tell friends about it. You and your child should not put information on social media that would let others know they are home alone.

Telephone and Texting

The telephone is the life line between parent and child. If your work situation permits, have your child call when he or she arrives home from school. A call from parents once or twice daily can provide a feeling of security. Children should know how to dial 911 know their address and phone number. There may be other numbers you want to post; a trusted friend or relative might be willing to be a contact for minor questions. It’s a good idea for your child to practice making these calls.

The phone can also provide a child with companionship. Some children on their own will hold long conversations or texting sessions daily with friends who are also on their own at home. If this is a matter of concern to you because you cannot get through when you try to reach your child, establish some rules. Set up a routine that allows your child to be on the phone talking or texting at a certain time, for example, after doing homework the child can make calls from 4:00-4:30.

Remind children that they always need to answer calls from their parents.

Answering phone calls without letting a stranger know that children are on their own is a concern. Children need to know how you want them to do this, some ideas that families use are:

  1. If you have a cell phone or caller ID do not answer or reply to a text if you don’t recognize the number

  2. If your child will be answering the phone teach them never to tell a caller or to text that they are home alone

  3. Tell the caller your parent can’t come to the phone right now.

  4. Take a message—name and phone number of caller.

  5. If you are concerned about the phone call or the caller calls more than once, call a parent or contact person.

  6. Check your child’s phone log and text messages regularly.

When the Doorbell Rings

The safest rule is to not answer the door. If this does not fit your family situation create other rules to help your child know when and how to answer the door.

Some rules that may help are:

  1. Be sure the door(s) is always locked.

  2. If you can, look through the door to find out who it is and what they want or talk through the door. Do not open the door.

  3. Do not be fooled by a request to use the bathroom or telephone. Say it is not possible.

  4. Never let anyone in unless you have been told to expect him or her, even if it is someone you know.

  5. If someone says he or she is making a delivery or coming to repair something and you were not expecting anyone, do not let him or her in.

  6. If the person is someone you know and/or if the person says your parents asked him or her to stop by, call your parents and check.

  7. If you are expecting a delivery or repair person, have him or her slip an ID card under the door.

  8. If someone continues knocking, call a neighbor or the police for help.

  9. Don’t be embarrassed when you don’t let people in!

When you decide what directions make sense for your family, write them out and leave them where your child can read them and don’t forget to practice.

Appliances

Identify those appliances that may be used and those that may not be used. You could have stickers that say “do not use” on each appliance that is not for children’s use or post a list on the refrigerator door. Be sure that children know how to properly operate the appliances they are permitted to use. Some appliances that parents may not want their children to use include irons, food processors, power tools, and stoves.

Internet Safety

While the internet can be fun and is a great tool for finding information and connecting with people, it can be a dangerous place for children. Establish rules for your child’s use of computer and internet. Some examples may be to:
  • Use a password so your child can only access the internet when you are home.

  • Set up parental controls so your child has limited access to social networking and inappropriate material.

  • Monitor your child’s internet use frequently by maintaining access to your children’s online accounts.

Emergency Situations

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A crisis is anything that upsets someone. We can help children on their own to distinguish between small crises and emergency situations.

Examples of small crises:

Locked Out

This can happen to all of us so it’s best for parents and children to plan for it. Leave a key with a contact person who lives close by and is usually home or hide a key that is accessible to the child.

Blackout

Plan ahead for a blackout by keeping a flashlight or two and a supply of batteries in handy places to be used in emergencies only. Discuss in advance with the child what to do in case of a blackout. Maybe the first thing to do is call a contact person or parents. Perhaps have a list of “things you can do in a blackout” near the “flashlight place.” List a few items that can run on batteries such as, radio, clock, and electronic games. Additional flashlights or battery-powered lamps can be very useful and help “light” a gloomy situation. Keep in mind that when electricity is off land-line phones may not work.

Plumbing

In the event of a leaking pipe, show your child where the shut-off valves for each sink and toilet are and how and when to turn them off. If a pipe is leaking badly or burst, be sure the child knows who to call (contact person, parent).

Broken Glass

If a glass or plate is dropped and shatters tell the child to first check for any cuts and take care of them first. If your child is barefoot, be sure he or she puts shoes back on. Show your child how to sweep broken glass into a dustpan and how to collect slivers with a damp paper towel. One effective strategy is to cover the area with a cloth or newspaper to mark it off limits to everyone until parents get home.

Home Fires

Children need to know that the most important thing to do is to get out of the house. They should not try to put out a small fire or go back into the house to get anything. They can call the fire department from a neighbor’s house.
  1. Show your children where the smoke detectors are in your house and let them hear what one sounds like when it goes off.

  2. Prepare a diagram of your house with escape routes from each room drawn in.

  3. Practice fire drills.

  4. Practice leaving a smoky room by crawling on hands and knees to the nearest exit.

  5. Decide on a meeting place where child should go if they have to leave the house.

Severe Weather/Tornadoes

Prepare a severe weather kit with your child and keep it in a designated place. Items for the kit might be:
  1. a weather radio or portable radio

  2. flashlight, extra batteries

  3. 2 days’ supply of food that needs no cooking or refrigeration and a can opener.

  4. 2-4 gallons of drinking water

  5. small first aid kit (see Safety Skills tab)

  6. diagram of where to go if there is a tornado warning

Teach children how to understand radio or television announcements:

  • a watch means be on the alert for more information

  • a warning means a tornado or severe storm has been sighted nearby and they should go to the safe place.

First Aid

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Children on their own should know basic first aid. They also need to know how to recognize what can be handled at home and what is an emergency. Put together a first aid kit with your child and be sure they know where it is kept. Some suggested contents include:
  • box of bandages of different sizes for small cuts and scrapes.

  • sterile gauze pad for larger cuts

  • adhesive tape to hold sterile pads

  • small scissors to cut tape

  • tweezers to remove bee stings or slivers

  • a product to treat insect bites

  • peroxide to clean cuts

  • cotton balls to use with peroxide

  • thermometer to check for fever

  • ice pack

Cuts, Scrapes & Burns

These are an everyday occurrence for many children. Teach children how to wash out small cuts or scrapes with soap and water and how to apply a bandage, if needed. If a cut is bleeding, tell the child to apply direct pressure until the bleeding stops, then clean and bandage the wound. If blood is gushing and squirting and can’t be stopped, this is an emergency. Have your child call a parent and ambulance immediately. The best treatment for minor burns is to run cold water on the burn or hold an ice cube on it until it no longer hurts. A cold pack from the freezer can be very helpful.

Nosebleeds

Nosebleeds can be very frightening to a child home alone so it’s important to teach children what to do.
  1. Sit up; don’t lie down.

  2. Pinch the nose between finger and thumb and apply pressure for about 5 minutes.

  3. If bleeding does not stop, apply cold cloth on the nose.

  4. If that doesn’t work, call for help.

Poisoning

The best treatment is prevention.

  • Place poisonous substances out of the reach of children.

  • Mark all poisonous substances clearly and explain symbols used to your child.

  • Keep number of poison control center on emergency phone list near phone.

The Iowa Poison Control number is

1-800-222-1222.

Remember that learning these self-care skills will help your child to feel more confident about being alone.

Siblings

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Caring for Siblings

Brothers and sisters provide company for each other and having more than one child in the house may reduce children’s fears and help time pass. On the other hand, parents and children both are concerned about squabbling, fighting, and arguing. An older sibling may be ready to be alone but when you add a younger brother or sister who is not as responsible or mature, the situation can become very difficult. 

Very young children should not be left in the care of a sibling on a daily basis. The potential exists for some serious problems and being aware of them can help prevent them. In some families, fighting can become so intense that accidents and injuries result. If there are no plans for who is responsible for what, parents may have so many phone calls that it becomes a problem in the work place. 

Sexual advances to younger children have been reported in some families. Often the younger children have been threatened not to tell. Parents can be alerted to physical symptoms of sexual abuse, including genital soreness or infection, and behavioral symptoms that may include: children who seem unusually close, children who seem fearful of an older sibling, children who show aggressive behavior toward an older sibling, complaints of headaches, stomach aches, nightmares, or changes in school performance. If parents suspect sexual abuse, they should talk to their children before reaching conclusions. If sexual abuse is confirmed, parents should obtain professional assistance.

Siblings Working Together

Involve all your children in figuring out how things are going to work. A child that is given responsibility for care of younger siblings needs to know what is expected of them and younger children need to be told that their older sibling will be making decisions. Children often come up with creative ideas that make good sense.

Shared Responsibility

One way to reduce conflicts between siblings is to reduce the amount of interaction between them. Siblings who are close in age can act independently and no one has to be “in charge.” The key to the house can be a symbol of power. With siblings close in age, consider giving each one his or her own key and emphasize that each is responsible for him or herself and each is directly responsible to the parents. Establish guidelines together in advance and post them in a prominent place. Set rules for things that create conflict, such as what chores each child is responsible for, what television programs may be watched, who sits where.

Older and Younger Siblings

If there is a big difference in ages of siblings, the oldest sibling is often responsible, or in charge. Help the older sibling understand what he or she may or may not do and how to be loving, understanding, and helpful to younger siblings. Handling authority, dealing with misbehavior, discipline, and punishment are the areas where problems often arise. The child in charge should help and support younger siblings, monitor behavior, enforce rules, and report problems to parents when necessary. By anticipating problems and making rules, parents can reduce conflicts. Limit the number of decisions the child in charge must make. Plan what snacks, chores, homework, and play activities children are to do after school.

Time and Routines

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Help Children Use Leisure Time.

Children on their own often have time that can be lonely or boring. The time left after chores and homework are done can be productive for children as they learn to enjoy leisure time. Using leisure time wisely is a lifelong skill- you can help children recognize that being bored is their choice, not a problem for someone else to solve for them. Parents can help children find interests and organize the possibilities by suggesting things to do inside and outside, things to do alone, and things to do with people. Be clear about activities with people, such as who, when, and where. Consider the possibility of phone pals—a friend to check homework with and talk to. Help your children develop some interests that can continue over time. Some children love to collect things or they might love to study sports statistics or cook for the family. Helping your child to find things to stay busy can help develop new skills.

Before school

Sometimes parents have to leave home before children wake up or they may be awake when parents leave and have a considerable amount of time on their own before they leave for school. One risk of leaving children alone in the morning is missing school. If a child misses the bus, he or she may not have another way to get to school. Other reasons that children give are that they overslept, couldn’t find homework, or lost track of time. Being late can also be a problem. Some schools do not admit late students without a note from parents. A good plan can help your child’s day get off to a good start.

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Make Suggestions or Create a Routine

If possible, make sure the child wakes up on time. If you must leave for work before your child gets up, be sure to arrange for the child to wake up on time—set an alarm or call them from work. Help your child prepare breakfast and lunch the night before. Your child can be ready the night before by setting the table and putting cereal in the bowl. Getting ready for school the night before can make life much easier! Help your child select clothing, check homework, pack book bag and arrange things in designated places to avoid panic in the morning. Preparing a list on a chalkboard or a special bulletin board in the kitchen or on the refrigerator door can help children remember what needs to be done. You can also write something special each day.

After School

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Parents can help children who are on their own after school to plan and organize what they can do, may do, and should do. Remember that school-agers enjoy having some free time to “hang out”—to think, to ponder, to daydream. They do not need to have every minute planned.
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TV, Video Games & Computer

You may want to discuss use of the television, video games and the computer. Discuss how long they can be used for, what is ok to watch, if there are siblings- who chooses, and other concerns. Remember parental controls are available for the computer and for many TVs.

Homework

Do you schedule homework for the evening when you can help children with assignments or does your family expect homework to be done after school? It is easy for children to put off homework so keeping track of completed assignments and setting a specified homework time, for example, 4:30 to 5:15, may help children stay on task. Set aside a few minutes daily to go over completed assignments.

Chores

Sharing household chores among family members helps children to build on-their-own skills and makes life easier for everyone. Create a system for sharing chores by making a list of what needs to be done daily and another of weekly chores. Show your child how to do the chore and be sure they have the tools to get it done. Make chore expectations clear, provide rewards and consequences. For example, “The beds must be done by 5 p.m., then you can work on your airplane model.” You might:
  • Assign chores on a weekly or monthly basis.

  • Have family members choose chores.

  • Draw chores. Household tasks are written on slips of paper and put into a jar or bowl. Family members draw a chore from the bowl.

Play Privileges

Some families require children to stay in the house until a parent arrives home and do not allow any friends in while parents are gone. Other families allow children to play outside under certain conditions; for example, “if chores and homework are done”, “as long as you are informed”, or “only certain friends are allowed”. Discuss the possibilities as a family and set clear rules. If your child plays at another child’s house, be sure you are comfortable with who is at that house. It is wise to check that rules are followed.

Developing Rules

Rules for children on their own help you anticipate problems and provide solutions in advance. Rules give structure and help children feel secure. Rules help children know what is expected and define boundaries for safety. When children understand the reasons for the rules and participate in developing rules, they are more likely to follow them. Guidelines for establishing effective rules

Involve the Child in Creating the Rules

  • State rules clearly, specifically, and in a positive manner — “The breakfast dishes should be done and the table set for dinner by 5:00 p.m.“

  • If the rule involves a task, make it a necessary one and appropriate for the child. It may be unreasonable for a 9-year-old to prepare dinner but appropriate to set the table.

  • Build in an enforceable consequence or a reward with the rule, such as: after your math homework is done you may watch television for a half-hour. When parents are not present to enforce the rules, they need ways to check in, such as reviewing homework shortly after they get home. Remember to check and enforce rules consistently.

  • Remember that mistakes can happen. Firmness, patience, and flexibility will help you and your child.

Great Snacks

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Plan Ahead

Most children arrive home from school needing a quick snack. You can help your child to make good choices about snacks by planning ahead. Children have high energy needs because their bodies grow rapidly. But besides extra calories, snacks can also provide children with vitamins, minerals and protein that may not be completely furnished in regular meals. Some very healthy snack foods are ready to go and need very little assembly. Fruits and vegetables, bread or crackers with peanut butter, juice and milk are easy to keep in the house. If less healthy foods such as potato chips, soda, and candy aren’t available children will make better choices. For more ideas on healthy and economical snacks for children see Iowa State University Extension Publication: Healthy Snacks for Kids. 

Meal Preparation

You may arrive home hungry and tired. Children may be expected to do advance preparation for dinner. If so, assignments should be clearly stated. Discuss plans the evening before: what preparation is needed and when it should be done. Jobs and recipes should be written clearly and then discussed. Keep in mind the capabilities of the children.

Linn County Resources

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There are many child care resources in our community. You can find a very good list HERE or Call United Way 2-1-1 to talk to someone who can help you with your specific needs.

Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&R)

This free service can help you to find appropriate child care in your community. There are a number of ways to link to them. You can use their web site to look for care that meets your child’s needs by going to www.iowa.ccrr.org They can also be reached at 1-855-244-5301 or you can contact a parent specialist for more information at referrals@iacommunityaction.org

Crisis Child Care Program

This program of the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP) is available free of charge on a short-term basis to Linn and Benton County families, regardless of income. Parents voluntarily place their children in care and retain all parental rights. A crisis situation may include domestic abuse, medical emergencies, housing problems, death, high levels of stress or other situations determined on an individual basis. When in a crisis and needing care, call the 24-hour hotline at 319-393-6355. After hour calls are answered by Foundation 2.

Your Child’s Teacher or School Counselor

Your child’s teacher or counselor is a good person to ask about after school and summer programs for children. They may be able to help you find just what your family needs.