Summer break can be a source of anxiety for working parents with middle school-aged children. Younger kids have a variety of options for extended childcare including sports camps, dance camps, sleep away camps, school-affiliated childcare, and after-school extension programs. While some camp options for young teens do exist, the price tag, logistics, enrollment availability or long-term schedule may make it an unrealistic option for many. The added element of the coronavirus pandemic further complicates the issue as more camps who could offer care for older children are remaining closed or drastically limiting the number of campers they are able to serve.

Middle school is often when the idea of a child staying home alone turns to reality. One question ever-present on a parent’s mind during this transition is, “How do I ensure my child is safe?” Canopy Children’s Solutions’ Senior Director of Solutions, Christian Ware, LPC, offers some tips on how to introduce independence while keeping your child safe.

“At some point, we have to give our kids the opportunity to learn responsibility,” says Ware. “Start preparing yourself and your child for this transition in advance. Make sure to have an in-depth conversation about rules and expectations. It is important that everyone is on the same page.”

Kids at home will experience more freedom, but that comes with added responsibility. While many parents are currently working from home, this poses the optimal time to teach skills that kids can practice independently while an adult closeby. This can include making sure your child has the skills to care for himself (such as making his own lunch) and an understanding of what is expected and the consequences set for overstepping boundaries. Discuss safety protocols such as what to do in an emergency, meet up locations, and identify trusted adults nearby that the child can turn to if he feels unsafe or needs help if you weren’t home. With the absence of landlines, you’ll also need to consider forms of communication, such as cellphones or tablets with video chat and Wi-Fi call features.

“Make sure you talk about visitors in the home and what to do when someone comes to the door,” says Ware. “Kids can be naïve, so if you haven’t had those difficult conversations about meeting online strangers, what to do in an emergency, etc., this is the time to do it. You also have the added layer of developing hormones and experimentation, so take the time to talk about making good decisions and the potential consequences of drugs, alcohol and sex.”

Set up your expectations early and make sure they are clearly communicated.

Additionally, Ware suggests if the children will be home alone all day, to allow them to show responsibility for themselves for shorter stints of time before making the bigger commitment. Start with baby steps and build your trust over time.

Advancements in technology have provided parents with more tools for safety and peace of mind. The use of doorbell and home security cameras allow you to view what is happening in and around your home. Those with integrated security features, such as wireless locks, can receive alerts if doors are left open or unlocked. Smartphones and smartwatches provide communication capabilities, such as text, voice and video chat but can also enable parents to view in real-time where a child is through GPS signaling. Smartphone subscription apps like Life 360® allow parents to receive alerts when a child arrives at or leaves a pre-selected location, such as home or school. Ware also recommends having scheduled check-in times throughout the day.

“Sometimes technology doesn’t work the way it should, so always have a fail-safe,” says Ware. “If your child misses a check-in and your parenting app isn’t loading properly, coordinate with a neighbor to check in and ensure everything is ok. Using the buddy system with nearby kids and their parents can be a great backup plan for when you aren’t home.”

Another concern many parents of young teens have is how to keep a child busy. Volunteering with local organizations, when it is available, provides a structured environment that teaches responsibility. Parents may also consider chore charts to teach life skills. Scheduling summer reading or other activities that engage the mind is helpful in combating summer learning loss. As venues and activities slowly reopen, consider offering gas money to older high school students or asking other parents to let your child tag along for trips to the pool, bowling alley or skating rink can keep him or her active and engaged. (Remember parenting teens/tweens takes a village, so don’t forget to return the favor with other parents when you schedule outings!)

It can be a difficult transition letting your child experience more freedom, but it can pay dividends in the long-term. Parents know their children best and what levels of responsibility they are mature enough to handle. Adequate preparation, open communication, and mutual trust are foundations to a safe and successful transition to learning independence.