When is a child old enough to be left home alone?

By Des Mannion

| 12 July 2019

With the school term finishing, the summer holidays are once again upon us.

Children and young people will have a much-earned rest after the academic year, as will their teachers.

Parents and carers, especially those unable to find childcare arrangements, will be faced with a tough choice about when is the appropriate age to leave a child home alone.

This is made harder as there is no legal minimum age that a child can be left unsupervised.

It can be difficult for parents and carers to decide whether their child is ready to be left on their own even without the increased childcare pressures caused by the break.

The law simply says that you shouldn't leave a child alone if they'll be at risk.

If there is a risk, parents and carers can be prosecuted for neglect and be fined or sent to prison if they are judged to have placed a child at risk of harm by leaving them at home alone.

Sadly, this happens all too frequently. According to NSPCC helpline figures, the problem is most acute in August.

For example, in August 2017, there were referrals from our helpline involving 849 children to police and social services across the UK where the concern was a lack of supervision.

The monthly average for the whole of 2017/18 was referrals from the helpline involving 606 children.

During August, a third of these referrals involved children who were aged five and under.

It is very concerning that we see a spike in August of police and social services referrals due to these sorts of worries.

No child should be left on their own if there is any risk they will come to harm.

We say that although a child may seem responsible enough to be left alone unsupervised, parents and carers should think carefully whether they could cope with unexpected situations.

It is our view that babies and very young children should never be left alone under any circumstances.

And children below 12 are rarely mature enough to cope in an emergency, so should not be left at home alone for a long period of time.

Children 16 and under shouldn't be left alone overnight.

Regardless of their age, it is important to note that if a child should never be left alone if uncomfortable with the idea.

If a child has additional needs, these should be considered when leaving them alone or with an older sibling.

We know that children mature at different rates, so it is vital that there is flexibility for parents and carers to make the judgment on what is right for their child.

If they feel confident, their child is happy with the decision and has the knowledge of what to do in an emergency, then the decision is theirs.

We know that the school holidays presents challenges for many families, but also an opportunity for them to spend quality time together.

Guidance on the NSPCC website is designed to help with those tricky decisions.

Des Mannion is head of service, NSPCC Cymru

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