The Dangers of Leaving Your Child Home Alone

In the iconic Christmas movie, "Home Alone," an 8-year-old Kevin puts his survival skills to the test after being accidentally left behind by his family. In reality, leaving your child alone for prolonged periods may cause abandonment issues.

A 1990 American comedy tells the story of Kevin McCallister, who is left alone at home just before Christmas. This does not stop Kevin from having a lot of fun and defending his suburban Chicago home from two robbers.

However, leaving your kid at home for three days could be considered neglect in real life. Some states have laws setting minimum ages for parents to leave their children alone, varying from 6 to 14 years. Parents can face prosecution if their child is harmed while being at home alone, even in states without minimum age requirements.

Nevertheless, about seven million American children aged 5 to 14 are home alone regularly, the U.S. Census data shows.

Looking after yourself while alone at home may help children develop confidence, responsibility, and management skills. In the movie, Kevin learns how to do grocery shopping and prepare his own dinner, albeit it is microwaved mac and cheese.

However, researchers say these skills can be developed only if a child is able and ready to be home alone and has a supportive environment.

At the same time, teenagers who are often left alone at home may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as using tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs, which may seriously affect their well-being.

Despite millions of children spending their days unsupervised, research on this topic is limited. A 2018 study from Japan found that children aged 6 or 7 years who are left alone at home once a week or more tend to have conduct problems, hyperactivity and inattention, and difficulties in their relationships with peers.

Physical and emotional scars

Each year, about 4.5 million children in the U.S. suffer injuries at home, the vast majority of which occur during evening hours when kids are out of school and unsupervised.

In the heart-wrenching "Home Alone" scene, Kevin asks Santa to have his family back instead of presents, perfectly illustrating the emotional toll being left behind had on him.

"Not surprisingly, leaving a child home alone for an extensive time can create abandonment issues," says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., AKA "Dr. Romance," a psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex, and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Relationship.

Tessina explains that this way, the trust is damaged because children expect to be able to trust their parents, not to be left behind. And this may affect all the child's future relationships.

Unless the abandonment issue is corrected in therapy later in life, it will make all future relationships difficult. An adult with residual abandonment issues has difficulty opening up to people, allowing themselves to be loved, and forming lasting bonds with others. The residual resentment and anger can also create problems, if the child-turned-adult continues to focus on the resentment and builds up anger.

Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D.

Ensuring child's safety

A common advice to parents who have no choice but to leave their kids alone is to make their home child-proof, which means locking up dangerous objects and substances.

Kevin defies all the rules by using fire and sharp instruments and even getting one of the burglars electrocuted.

Although in real life, it is not very plausible for parents to accidentally leave their children behind, they should be prepared for emergencies.

Tessina says: "Ideally, parents would have arrangements in place so that someone else could take responsibility for the child in an emergency situation. A close and trusted neighbor, the known parents of the child's friend, or a reliable family member or family friend should have agreed in advance to step in if the parents are unavailable for emergency reasons."

She says that other than emergencies, there is no excuse for well-off parents to leave a minor child home alone without care or supervision.

To ensure children's safety while they are alone, the Utah State University researchers recommend making the proper preparations:

  • Schedule a time to get in touch so the child will understand when you're available and when you may not be able to answer a call.
  • Set ground rules for when you're away, such as about having people over, using TV or the internet, or rules regarding the kitchen, and make sure the child knows and understands them.
  • Stock up on goods and emergency supplies; for instance, leave flashlights handy in case of a power outage.
  • Prepare for emergencies by posting important phone numbers. Make sure to regularly discuss or practice emergency scenarios.
  • Hide an extra key outside in case they get locked out.
  • Give them a list of people they can call or things they can do if they get lonely.
  • Secure anything that could be a health safety or risk, such as medicines, alcohol, and weapons. Teach them basic safety rules, such as not to put cords near water or put metal in the microwave.

Kevin spent three days completely alone without experiencing major physical and, most likely, emotional injuries. But children in real life are more vulnerable than movie characters. For them, being left behind may have life-lasting consequences.


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