Leaving your child home alone

In the Northern Territory (NT) there is no law that tells you the age your child needs to be before you can leave them at home alone.

Under the law parents are responsible for caring for their child and keeping them safe.

Parents can be charged with an offence if children are left alone in a dangerous situation and are not fed, clothed or provided with adequate shelter.

The police or Department of Children and Families can remove a child from situations where there is a danger to their health or safety.

There are many things to think about when deciding whether your child can be left at home on their own. These include:

  • safety
  • the ages of your children
  • how mature and capable they are
  • whether they understand the rules
  • whether they could cope in an emergency.

This page includes tips on how to decide when you can safely leave your child at home alone and how you can prepare them.

How to know if your child is ready

Follow this checklist to help decide if your child is ready to stay at home alone.

Check how each child feels about being home on their own

If your child is frightened to be on their own, talk to them about it. 

If they are scared of something specific, like the sound of a tree banging against the window, then sometimes just helping your child to work out what they are frightened of can make their fear go away.

If their fear is a more general one, then making your child stay home alone could be terrifying for them. Wait until they are older and more confident before you let them stay home on their own.

Check the safety of your house and neighbourhood

Check that your house is safe.  

Find a trusted person who lives or works nearby to help your child if needed. 

Read more about child safety

See Step 1: Make your place safe on the 7 Steps to Safety page of the Department of Children and Families website.

Check if each child can physically manage on their own

Check if your child is tall and strong enough to open and close doors and windows and turn on light switches at home. 

If they need to stand on a chair to reach, then they are not big enough yet to stay at home safely.

Make sure your child is able to safely manage simple jobs, like getting a snack ready.

Check if each child can make safe decisions

As children get older, they get better at being able to plan and predict - but they still don't think in the same way as adults.

To stay home alone your child needs to be grown-up enough to think about what may happen if they don't follow a rule or if something unexpected happens.

You can play a what-if game to help you work out if your child is thinking safely. 

See Step 6: Ready Yet? on the 7 Steps to Safety page of the Department of Children and Families website.

If most of your child's answers are unsafe, then they are probably not ready to be left on their own.

Check if each child is responsible enough

Check that each child can find safe, active and interesting things to do when they're at home on their own. Help them to get into a routine of things to do, especially after school. 

Think about whether your child will follow your family rules when you are not at home.

Check that your child can talk about their feelings

Check in with your child about how they are feeling and encourage them to tell you if something goes wrong.

Help them to recognise when they are feeling unsafe or scared. Let them know they can talk to you, or to someone else they trust.

Check how you can support your child

Work out ways to supervise and support your child when they are home alone. You could arrange to phone them, or for a trusted neighbour to check on them.

Get home when you say, or let your child know if you are going to be late. An extra half hour can seem a very long time if your child is worried or frightened.

Check that you have prepared your child to be on their own

It’s important that your child knows how to handle unexpected situations at home.

Check that you have a list of emergency contacts somewhere easy to see and that your child knows what to do in an emergency. Help them to practice. 

See Step 5: Emergency on the 7 Steps to Safety page of the Department of Children and Families website.

Preparing your child for staying home alone

The following rules and tips can help you and your child prepare for staying home alone.

Have clear rules and make sure that each child understands them

You may need to have different rules for when your child is at home on their own, or home with brothers and sisters. 

This could include rules about things such as playing inside and outside, answering the phone or door, family pets, using technology and friends coming over.

Don’t assume your child knows the rules. Ask them to tell you the rules, and to show you what they would do in a situation. Younger children can know a rule but still act without thinking. 

See Step 2: Cool tools for family rules on the 7 Steps to Safety page of the Department of Children and Families website. This brochure has ideas on how to make rules with your child that can help keep them safe.

When preparing your child for staying home alone, make sure they know the following:

  • how to use the home or mobile phone to contact you, neighbours, friends, family and emergency services on 000 - see Step 5: Emergency on the 7 Steps to Safety page of the Department of Children and Families website
  • their own phone number and home address - emergency services will need to know where to go
  • where to find the first-aid kit and how to use it
  • how to use keys in deadlocks and how to unbolt them, if needed
  • what to do if there is a fire - what to do if a smoke alarm sounds and how to use a fire extinguisher or fire blanket
  • how to judge if a child is unwell and needs help.

Leaving older children in charge

It is not fair to expect an older child to care for younger brothers and sisters. They might resent being asked to do it and younger children can resent being told what to do.

It can be especially challenging if any children are unwell, have difficult behaviours, or a disability which requires extra care and consideration. The oldest child is not always the most capable to care for other children.

You could be held responsible if something goes wrong when a person under 18 years old is caring for younger children.

If you decide to leave your children in the care of an older brother or sister or other young person, the following strategies can help:

  • make sure all the children know who is in charge and that they are confident and happy about it
  • set clear rules, displayed for everyone to see, and make sure everyone understands them - get the step 2: cool tools for family rules brochure from the 7 Steps to Safety page on the Department of Children and Families website
  • if the children are close in age, make sure each one is responsible for themselves - you can only do this if all the children are grown up enough to follow the family rules and help each other out
  • help them work out what to do if there are things they often argue about when you are out - eg: watching TV or doing jobs around the house
  • make sure your children know and have practiced what to do in an emergency and have a list of emergency contacts - get the step 5: emergency brochure from the 7 Steps to Safety page on the Department of Children and Families website
  • if you are leaving a mobile phone with your child, program contact phone numbers into it
  • write down any instructions and keep them visible
  • if friends are allowed over, make sure their parents know you won’t be home
  • be realistic in what you expect - older children are still children and it may not be fair to leave them in charge of younger ones, especially overnight.

Babies and toddlers

Babies and toddlers should never be left at home alone, even for a short time. It is unsafe and could be stressful for them.

Imagine what could happen if you left your sleeping baby at home while you picked up your child from preschool and then you had an accident and could not get home quickly. 

When the time is right

If you and your child feel confident that they are ready and prepared to stay at home alone, the following tips can help you start: 

  • start with short periods of time - try 10 minutes to see how it goes
  • check with each child about how it went - ask if they felt safe or if there was anything they were worried about
  • try something else if it doesn’t work - maybe that child is not ready yet
  • talk about the family rules regularly - children sometimes forget and you will need to remind them
  • regularly go through the checklist of how to know if your child is ready.

More information

For more information or to find out where you can get support go to the following websites.

Child health, learning and development

Raising Children Network
Department of Children and Families - 7 Steps to Safety

Counselling services

Kids Helpline
Parentline

Product safety

Kidsafe NT

Last updated: 27 June 2017