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Can (and should) I leave my teen alone at home?

Home alone: Is it ok to leave your teen at home? The topic of when parents can start leaving their children at home is a controversial one.

Is it okay to leave your teen alone at home? Perhaps that depends largely on the age of your teen, so for the basis of this particular article, we’ll be focussing on younger teens aged 12 and upwards.

An appropriate age

Some countries have legal prescriptions regarding which age is deemed appropriate for a child to be left alone, and others don’t. In Queensland, Australia, it is deemed unlawful to leave a 12-year-old alone for an “unreasonable” amount of time. “Unreasonable” could be relative from one household to another. According to the legislation, the time will be deemed unreasonable depending on the surrounding circumstances. The UK government does not have a legal age where a parent is permitted to leave a child. They do, however, offer some key guidelines and these are:

  • Children under 12 are rarely mature enough to be left alone for long periods.
  • Children under 16 should not be left alone overnight.
  • Babies, toddlers, and very young children should never be left alone.

What is the legal age in SA?

South Africa does not have a legal age when you can or cannot leave your teens (or younger kids) alone over an extended period, or even overnight. However, section 28 of the South African constitution is very clear. It states that every child (persons under the age of 18) is entitled to:

  • Be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse, or degradation.
  • Not be required or permitted to perform work or provide services that are inappropriate for a person of that child’s age or risk the child’s well-being, education, physical or mental health, or spiritual, moral, or social development.

Good to know: If anything happens to your child alone at home, a parent could be charged for negligence because you put the child’s life at risk. According to criminal law expert Charnelle van der Bijl, parental criminal responsibility has been criticised because “many parents face challenges such as those of being a single parent or of suffering poverty, both of which will be exacerbated if fines are imposed, or if such parents are imprisoned for their child’s misconduct.” Some parents find themselves unable to take their children everywhere and would need to stay home. Some single moms struggled during the beginning of lockdown when children were not allowed inside grocery stores. So this presents a complexity for some parents to try and navigate.

Your child’s maturity level

Your neighbour’s 12-year-old and your own child might be the same age, but have a different sense of maturity. Think about this:

  • Does your teen follow rules?
  • Do they know what to do in an emergency?
  • Can they take care of themselves (clean, cook) without your assistance?
  • Is your teen prone to fear or peer pressure?

Good to know: Every parent knows their kid well enough to discern whether or not they can handle the freedom (or fear) of being left alone.

What about leaving a teen with younger siblings?

Looking after siblings is an added responsibility that not every sibling is capable of. So, it is advisable to first see if your older child can take care of themselves first before they can take care of the other kids. It is also advisable to make the first attempt a short trip. A run to the grocery store or errands that don’t take too long is best. You can properly ‘test the waters’ to see whether or not your child has the capability of staying home alone or not.  

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