Can you leave children home alone during the school holidays?
The summer holidays are undoubtedly a challenging time for parents, who have six, long weeks to entertain their children while also juggling work and childcare.
For some carers the stress of it all could prompt a decision to leave children on their own, but the NSPCC has issued some advice urging mums and dads to think carefully before leaving kids home alone.
In an open letter shared to News Letter, Joanne McDonnell, Service Head Helplines, NSPCC Northern Ireland has shared some expert insight about if and when it is safe for your child to be left home alone.
The advice comes after the charity previously reported a rise in children being left home over the summer holidays.
A 2019 report from the NSPCC revealed that the organisation received 5,737 calls and emails to its helpline in 2018-19 about the issue – a 21% increase on the year before.
The NSPCC says that it does generally see a rise in contacts to its helpline over the summer months with people concerned about children being left unsupervised.
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It is likely the rising costs of childcare, particularly in the summer holidays, could be contributing to this rise in concern about children being left unsupervised.
Recent figures reveal the average place at a holiday club now costs £145 per week, according to the Coram Family and Childcare’s 16th annual survey, which is more than twice what parents typically pay for after-school club in term time.
Attending a holiday club is now 5% more expensive than it was in 2019, according to the research, and that comes as parents are also struggling with rising energy bills, food prices, fuel costs and more.
So when can children legally be left alone?
There are no UK laws dictating an age at which children can be left home alone meaning the decision is left solely in the hands of the parent or guardian.
Government guidance encourages parents to use their judgement before leaving children alone or in a car.
But the NSPCC advises that babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left unsupervised even for 15 minutes while you pop down the road.
The charity adds that this applies not just to leaving them home alone but also in your car while you run into the shops.
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While there is no official law about the age a child is old enough to be left home alone, the NSPCC says it wouldn't recommend leaving a child under 12 years old home alone, particularly for longer periods of time.
"Children in primary school aged 6-12 are usually too young to walk home from school alone, babysit or cook for themselves without adult supervision," the charity's online guidance states.
"If you need to leave them home, it's worth considering leaving them at a friend's house, with family or finding some suitable childcare."
The NSPCC also stresses that children under the age of 16 should not be left unsupervised overnight.
Despite being somewhat of a grey area, the government website points out that parents can be prosecuted if they leave a child unsupervised “in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health.”
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How do you know if your child is mature enough to be left alone?
The NSPCC recommends taking to your child as they get older about how they feel about being left home alone.
"If they're worried, work out what parts of being home alone worry them," the site suggests. "Do they feel safe in the neighbourhood? Are they afraid of the dark?"
The charity suggests talking about anything that is bothering your child and discussing a solution.
Understanding why they don’t feel comfortable will give you an idea of how to help – or why they might not be ready to be left alone.
"It’s vital to talk to your child about how they feel about this situation and ask if they are worried about anything when being home alone and do they feel safe," McDonnell writes in her open letter to parents.
"Regularly checking how they feel, can pinpoint any concerns and will give you an idea of how to help or why they might not be ready to be left alone. If they are happy to be home alone for a while, it’s always good to check in with them to make sure they feel safe."
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As for knowing when is the right time to leave children on their own, it is often a matter of judgement.
“Leaving your child home alone can be a difficult decision as children mature at different ages – there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer,” Louise Exton, manager at the NSPCC helpline, previously told Yahoo UK.
"Parents are best placed to know what is right for their child so it’s vital there is flexibility for them to decide, but we would urge them to think carefully and use their common sense when deciding if their child could cope.”
For more guidance on when you should and shouldn't leave your child alone and tips on how to tackle the issue visit the NSPCC's web page on leaving kids home alone.