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When can a child with ADHD stay home alone?

June 09, 2016 | UCI Health
Child studying at home

Kids may be giddy with excitement over the approaching summer, but for parents, especially working parents, summer vacation poses new challenges for child care or supervision.  

As children grow older and more independent, parents ask whether their kids are old enough to be left home alone for all or part of the day.

That question is tricky for any parent. But for parents of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it's even more of a dilemma. By definition, children and teens with ADHD are more restless, inattentive and impulsive. Those traits can spell disaster if a child, home alone, becomes bored and in need of stimulation or activity.

When is a child with ADHD ready?

"This is a decision that has to be approached with caution," says Sabrina Schuck, PhD, executive director of the UCI Health Child Development School. "There is a wide range of risk. Some kids with ADHD are more independent than others."

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) lists 11 or 12 as an appropriate age to leave children at home, but only during the day and for no more than about three hours. The National SAFE KIDS Campaign recommends that no child under 12 be left home alone. The AAP has a checklist parents can use to help them decide if a child is mature enough to be left home alone.

Checklist of concerns

While the checklist applies to kids in general, parents of kids with ADHD need to take other factors into consideration, Schuck says.

They include:

The correct diagnosis

Do you know for sure that your child is only impaired by ADHD? Sometimes parents are mistaken about whether a child really has ADHD or whether there may be another diagnosis. Or the child has the condition but hasn't been formally diagnosed. Have a realistic understanding of your child's condition, Schuck says.

Moreover, many children with ADHD commonly have other neuro-developmental or behavioral disorders and mental health challenges, she says, such as oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, depression and anxiety. While you may feel comfortable leaving a 12-year-old with ADHD home alone, it may not be safe to leave a 16-year-old with ADHD and depression home alone.

Previous behavior

Think about your child's history. If he or she has had a lot of physical injuries and trips to the hospital emergency room, it may signal that the child needs constant supervision for safety reasons, Schuck says.

"Hyperactive, impulsive kids have more of a history of repeated injuries," she says. "Kids at risk for physical injury are best not to leave alone at home."

Ability to follow rules

Likewise, if your child hasn't shown the ability to follow rules, it's not a vote of confidence for leaving him or her home alone, Schuck says. Children who are left home alone need to be thoroughly prepared for the experience by learning and absorbing household rules, such as not cooking, answering the front door or swimming in the pool. They need to know who to contact in an emergency and how to do that.

"How well is your child able to follow rules at home? Do you have any rules in your home?" she says. "If you can't get your child to follow established house rules on their own and independently, without constant coaxing from you, your child is not ready to be alone at home. It's crucial that the rules are clearly posted, agreed upon and reviewed frequently."

If you do leave your child at home alone, when you return, go over the day with your child and review whether the rules were followed and what the child did in certain situations, Schuck advises. “For example, what did you do when the phone rang?"

The child's perspective

Assess your child's comfort level, Schuck says.

"A child with ADHD may, in early adolescence, develop more symptoms of anxiety that make it less comfortable for him or her to be alone," she says. "Children may be less likely to think on their feet and make good decisions if they have anxiety."

One exercise to test your child's readiness to be left alone consists of taking small steps. Leave the child alone while you make a 30-minute trip to the grocery store. If that goes well, slowly extend the time he or she is alone.

"Have your child demonstrate he or she can be home alone. It helps the child build more confidence."

Other considerations

  • Does your child have a cell phone and a charger handy in case the phone battery dies during the day? (Teens are infamous for going places and having the phone die with no access to a charger or land line.)
  • Has your child's medication been changed recently? How might that affect his or her behavior?
  • Is your neighborhood safe?
  • Does your child have allergies or other medical conditions?

Finally, Schuck reminds parents that children with ADHD are at higher risk of experimenting with nicotine products and illicit substances at younger ages.

Other options for supervision

While the child care costs can be painful during the summer, making sure your child or teen is supervised may be worth every penny.

"Child care costs have to be factored into the budget," she says. "There are a lot of affordable child care options for the summer for families, such as programs at Boys and Girls Clubs and summer day camps.

"Parents may find other parents to share supervision chores, taking turns overseeing the activities of a small group of children or teens one day a week.

Other good tips are available through parenting classes, such as the eight-week course provided through UCI Health each quarter, "Social Skills for Children With ADHD and ASD” with Dr. Lillian Swords, and “Introduction to Parenting Techniques” with Schuck. Call 949-824-2343 for class information and registration.

Seek others’ advice

Seek professional advice if you're unsure of your child's development, she adds. At the UCI Health Child Development School, which is for children with various developmental conditions such as ADHD, parents meet for group sessions every other week to talk about common experiences and dilemmas, such as leaving a child home alone.

"It's about finding that delicate balance between being a helicopter parent and ensuring your child's safety," Schuck says.

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