University of Illinois Extension

When the Kids Are Home Alone

Milly Kaiser, Family Life Educator

Safety is a big concern when children are home alone. If your older grandchild is alone after school or during the summer, you'll want to discuss some basic safety precautions.

Make Sure Children Understand Who a Stranger Is

Children often think that a stranger is someone they have never seen before, or someone who looks mean or unfriendly. Unfortunately, most individuals who try to harm children appear kind and friendly. The person may even be someone the child knows. So, we need to help children distinguish between total strangers, familiar strangers, and trusted family and friends. A total stranger is someone the child has never seen before. A familiar stranger is someone the child has seen but does not know well - like the cashier at the grocery store. Trusted family and friends are people whom you would invite into your home.

In stressing safety, be careful not to undermine the children's basic sense of trust. Point out that most strangers are good people who have good intentions. But also remind children that they should never go anywhere with a stranger. In fact, they shouldn't even go near someone they don't know well. And finally, remind your grandchildren to never give personal information or accept gifts from a stranger.

Who's Calling?

When grandchildren are home alone, the phone can be a source of comfort and reassurance. In an emergency, the telephone can bring immediate help. But, the telephone can also be a source of danger if children do not safely respond to phone calls. If you have an answering machine or caller ID, encourage your grandchildren to screen calls before answering them. Otherwise, share the following safety tips:

  • Begin by only saying "Hello." Never answer the phone by giving your name.
  • Never tell a stranger that you are alone or that your grandparents are not home.
  • If a stranger asks to speak to your grandparents, say that they are busy and cannot come to the phone.
  • Never give any information about you or your family.
  • Offer to take a message.

Who's There?

A knock on the door when a grandchild is home alone can be a frightening moment. Children need to remain calm and realize that most people who approach the house do not intend to harm them. When children are home alone, you may want to instruct them not to answer the door at all. But if you do expect them to answer the door, instruct your grandchild to:

  • Identify who is at the door. Without opening the door, ask, "Who is it?"
  • Never open the door to a stranger.
  • Never tell a stranger that you are alone or that your grandparents are not home.
  • If a stranger asks to speak to your grandparents, say that they are busy and cannot come to the door.
  • Never give any information about you or your family.
  • Offer to take a message.

Make Help Easy to Find

Although it is unlikely that a life-threatening situation will occur while your grandchildren are alone, make sure they know what to do in an emergency. Have them call 911 if your area has that service. Otherwise, post emergency phone numbers for the police department and fire department. Other numbers you might post include your work number, trusted stay-at-home neighbors, the poison control center, and doctors.