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Home Alone: Preparing for Emergencies

by Brittney Schrick - June 24, 2016

Title card home alone emergency preparedness

Is your child ready to stay home alone? One way to decide and to prepare them is to discuss emergencies and "what if" scenarios. Does your child know what to do if someone rings the doorbell? If there is a fire? If the power goes out? If they injure themselves? While you can't discuss or cover every possible thing that could ever go wrong, you should cover likely (and unlikely but dangerous) emergency situations with your child before they are allowed to stay home alone. Even if none of these things ever happen, it is always better to be prepared.

Telephone Usage and Availability:

One of the major differences between leaving a child home alone today and leaving a child home alone even as recently as 5 years ago is the increase in "cellphone only homes." Over 55% of children live in homes that do not have a landline telephone. In general, this change is minor when we think about the day-to-day workings of a family, but when leaving a child home alone, their access to a working telephone is of crucial importance to their safety. Older children may have their own cellphone, but younger children often do not. So, if your child is one who does not have her/his own phone, what can you do to allow them to stay home when you have no landline?

If you have reliable internet access, an iPod, iPad, other tablet, or home computer will often have options such as FaceTime, Skype, or similar apps or options, so these might be a possibility for short periods. Home alarms generally have a way of contacting police or fire in emergencies; however, many families do not have these services available. If your child does not have access to a reliable form of communication, it is not advisable to leave them at home alone. If you think you will leave your child home alone regularly and you do not currently have a landline telephone it may be worthwhile to install one. Typically, a simple landline that isn't used for long distance can cost as little as $5 per month, and many communities have programs to help low-income families with utilities such as phone service. Another option is to get your child a mobile phone to use to stay in touch with you while they are alone. Your choice will differ depending on your circumstances, but the importance of having reliable communication cannot be overstated. 

Telephone Safety: Whether you have a landline, a cell phone, or an internet-based phone, it is important to teach your child how to interact with people on the phone, how to make outgoing calls, and how to responsibly answer the phone. Because our society currently relies so heavily on text-based communication, many children do not know how to respectfully answer a phone call, dial a telephone, call 911, or look for a phone number.  

  • Teach your child your phone number at an early age. They should learn all 10 digits including the area code to insure that they can call you or give your number to someone in an emergency. 
  • Teach your child how to answer the phone using practice calls or having a friend or relative call. Because of limited experience on the phone, many children will feel hesitant to answer or talk on the phone, so these practice calls will increase their confidence and help them build an important skill. You may want to teach your child to avoid answering the phone unless they recognize your number or the number of another relative; however, if you need to call from another location such as an office or a friend's cell phone, this can be problematic. Older children should learn to answer the phone safely, and you should discuss specific rules and preferences for this with your child.
  • Teach your child: 
    • to make an emergency call on a landline and on a cellphone and WHEN it is appropriate to make those calls. 
    • to answer the phone (when appropriate) politely without giving their name to the caller.
    • to NEVER tell a caller that they are home alone, but rather to say their parent "can't come to the phone right now."
    • to take a message from a caller, and to call you with the message if it cannot wait.
    • to not give out parents' cell or work numbers over the phone to an unknown caller.
    • to call you if they are repeatedly called by an unknown caller.

Emergency Preparedness:

Emergency preparedness is important for all children and families, regardless of whether or not a child stays home alone. Understanding basic safety rules, emergency responses, and first aid are helpful throughout life, and they give children a sense of self-confidence that is invaluable. 

Visitor Safety: Many families instruct children to avoid answering the door when home alone. You will need to decide what rules to place on your child depending on your housing situation, your child's maturity and age, and your comfort with your child answering the door in your absence. For example, if you have a buzzer and intercom system you may need to treat that differently than a home that has a peephole or window. 

  • Be sure your child knows:
    • to keep the doors locked at all times when they are alone. 
    • to check the peephole or look through a window if someone knocks, or to simply ignore the knocking.
    • that they should NEVER let anyone in or go out to someone even if they ask to use the restroom or phone, say they know you, or that they have a delivery. If you are expecting a delivery, let the child know how you want them to handle it.
    • if someone will be coming by to check on them. Be sure tell them in advance whom to expect and approximately when they will come by. 
    • who they need to call if someone keeps knocking or calling through the door or if they feel they are in danger. 

Crisis or Emergency Situations: It is important to prepare children to respond effectively in a crisis or emergency situation. Practicing drills or giving written instructions may help a child remain calm if something unexpected should happen. Some examples your child should be prepared for include:

  • Power Outage: Depending on the time of day, the season, whether the child is relying on the internet or electricity for their communication, and their proximity to neighbors will all influence how big a problem a blackout can be. Make sure your child has access to a flashlight and knows to call you if a power outage occurs. Offering options of activities to do while waiting for the power to come back on may also help keep them calm. 
  • Being Locked Out: Locking keys in the house or forgetting a key can happen to anyone, so it is best to help your child plan what to do if they are locked out of the house. Leave a key with a neighbor or in a safe location that is out of sight but accessible to the child. Another option may be to install a lock on your door that has a coded keypad and does not require a key. 
  • Severe Weather: Even if your child is not home alone frequently, it is always a good idea to have a severe weather plan for the whole family that includes an accessible emergency kit that includes (at the very least) water, snacks/food, a small first aid kit, and a flashlight. Be sure your child knows where to go in case of tornado warning or sighting. 
  • Fire: Be sure your child knows where to go in case of a house fire. Having a fire extinguisher in the home and accessible to the child is a good idea. Check to insure that all smoke detectors are in working order. Teach your child how to stay low, check doors for heat, open windows in case they need to evacuate, and what to do if their clothes catch fire (Stop, Drop, & Roll!). They should understand that their first priority is to get out of the house, and they should not return to the house for anything. 
  • Appliance/Plumbing: Teaching your child where shut-off valves for sinks and toilets are located and how to turn them may help avoid larger problems should a leak or overflow occur. If you have natural gas appliances, make sure your child knows to avoid pilot lights and that they know what a leak smells like and how to respond if one should occur. 
  • Minor Injury: Make sure there is a first aid kit available to your child that would allow them to address a minor injury such as a cut or scrape. If you expect your child to stay home alone frequently or to be in charge of younger siblings at any time, it would be a good idea to find a first aid class for them to take. Contact your county extension agent to find resources in your area. 
  • Major Injury: If they sustain a major injury, they should learn to call for emergency help using 911 or to contact you or a neighbor. 

There is a lot to think about when preparing a child to stay alone. Even if they will only be alone for 30 minutes, understanding what to do in an emergency builds confidence and skill that lasts a lifetime. 

For More Information:

Home Alone: Are They Ready?

Red Cross Home Alone Guidelines for Kids