It’s back-to-school time again, and if you are working full-time outside of the home then you may be faced with how to handle after school care for your preteen. Middle-school-aged children are beginning to discover their adolescent independence and part of this journey includes the desire to be as autonomous as possible. They no longer want to have adult supervision be referred to as “babysitting” or “childcare” and they may insist that they are old enough to stay home alone.
When my oldest daughter was twelve, she begged and pleaded with me to me to let her stop attending the afterschool program and start riding the bus home instead. Since my husband and I were both working full-time, she would have to walk home from the bus by herself and then spend three to four hours home alone every afternoon. Although I had been a latchkey kid in middle school eons ago, I was still nervous about leaving my daughter by herself for this length of time each day knowing that I wouldn’t be there if she needed help in an emergency. I addressed this by establishing a few guidelines that she agreed to follow and we set up a safety plan together.
Here are a few ways to keep your latchkey kid safe (and you anxiety-free) while you are at work.
Ensure your preteen has access to a phone.
This is essential to any minor that is staying home alone. Review with your preteen what circumstances are appropriate for calling the 9-1-1 emergency dispatch line and what information to report. Make sure they know their home address and phone number. If possible, install a landline for your child to use in case of emergencies. When 9-1-1 is dialed, land lines can be easily traced by emergency personnel even if your child is unable to speak. In some counties, an ambulance or police officer may be automatically dispatched to the address to check on the caller. This can be life-saving for your child if a true emergency arises while they are home alone. If your preteen has a cell phone, you can teach your child how to use the one-touch emergency call option. Program your contact information into the cell phone using the prefix ICE. This stands for In Case of Emergency and is one method emergency personnel can use to locate your contact information if your child is found unconscious. This article has additional tips on how to use a cell phone during emergencies.
Arrange for your preteen to send you scheduled updates.
Set up specific times for your child to text or call you with updates so that you know when they arrive home, that they have locked the doors, and that they are safely inside. If your child has access to a cell phone or computer with a camera, ask them to text or email you a “selfie” picture with the afternoon update. This will reassure you that they are home safe and provide you with a current picture should an emergency arise. Because most parents do not remember what outfit their older children wore to school each day having a recent photo is imperative if your preteen should go missing.
Teach your preteen how to maintain home security and personal safety.
Stress to your preteen the importance of not opening the door if someone knocks, keeping the doors and windows locked at all times and setting the security alarm if your home has one. When my daughter first started staying home alone, there were a handful of times that I arrived after work to find her keys still hanging from the doorknob outside. I explained to her that even though she had dutifully locked the door from the inside, it didn’t matter since anyone could’ve easily unlocked it. She was still having trouble remembering to take her keys out of the door. To help her remember, I insisted she text a photo to me of the front door knob after she removed the keys. Some scientific studies have shown it takes at least 66 days to establish a habit, so I had her do this for two months. Though she complained about it a little, it was very effective and she no longer leaves her keys in the lock outside.
Develop a network of emergency contacts.
It is important to establish at least one contact person that your preteen can ask to help them if they are not able to reach you. Where we live, the power and phone line services are frequently interrupted by afternoon thunderstorms, making it difficult sometimes to contact my daughter from work. When this happens, I am able to call one of our neighbors, who agreed to check on my daughter as needed. My daughter knows that she can go to this neighbor’s home in an emergency. We also keep a list of emergency contacts posted on our refrigerator, as well as storing them in my daughter’s cell phone.
Teach your preteen what to do if there is a fire.
Before leaving your preteen home alone for the first time, make sure you review proper fire extinguisher use and fire escape routes with them. Check your fire extinguishers to ensure that they are not expired and that the pressure gauge needle is still in the green zone, indicating that it is ready for use. Store them where your child can easily access them and walk your child through the steps of operation. Keep your fire escape route and safety plan posted on the refrigerator and stored on their cell phone (if they have one).
After we settled into a routine, I was no longer anxious about my preteen staying home alone after school and my daughter enjoyed her new independence.