Children out alone
Advice for parents
The NSPCC advises as follows:
- In most situations, children under about eight years old shouldn’t be out alone, especially in busy towns. Even when out playing with other children, they need to be kept in the care and sight of an adult or a much older child who is mature and trustworthy.
- Never leave young children in unsupervised play areas in shops or parks. And don’t leave them alone in the car or outside a shop, not even for a few minutes.
- If you’re in a crowded place, keep children in a pram or buggy, hold hands tightly, or use reins. Don’t walk far ahead of small children who can’t keep up. Remember, it only takes a moment for toddlers to wander off.
- As soon as children are able to understand, teach them their full name, address and telephone number. Practise these with them until you’re sure they can remember.
- You can start teaching children simple rules about personal safety from as young as two or three. Tell them clearly that they must never go off with anyone, not even someone they know, without first asking you or the adult who is looking after them. Turn it into a game you can play when you pick them up from nursery.
- Teach older children safe ways of crossing roads, going shopping and asking adults for directions, and let them practise these with you until you are sure that they have understood. When they are mature enough to be out alone, make sure they tell you: Who they’re going out with; Where they’re going (if possible get a phone number where you can reach them); When they will be back.
- In busy public places, arrange somewhere safe to meet in case you get separated, like an information desk or cash point. Make sure that children know what to do if they ever get lost, and who is safest to ask for help - a police officer, shop assistant or someone with a young child.
- Help to build your child’s self-esteem with lots of love, praise and attention. Bullies and dangerous adults may tend to pick out less confident children or these who are neglected and often left alone.
- Let children know that they never have to do anything they don’t like with an adult or older child - even if it’s someone they know. Practise this at home by never making them kiss or hug an adult if they don’t want to.
- Listen to your children, especially when they are trying to tell you about things that worry them. Is there a bully at school or a babysitter they don’t like? Let children know that you will always take them seriously and do whatever you can to keep them safe.
There is further advice in an NSPCC leaflet which can be sent out to parents.
Advice to adults concerned about children out alone
Keeping children safe is everybody’s business. It can be difficult to know when to act and what to do, especially when another adult is involved. You may feel embarrassed or afraid of the adult’s reaction. And you certainly don’t want to make things worse for the child. The important thing is to try and stop children being hurt. It’s better to seem like a busybody than to ignore a child who may be in danger.
If you see a child out alone (or a group of children out together) when you think they should be in school, there may be a perfectly good explanation. For example, the school may be closed for holidays or an INSET day; the child may have reached school leaving age, or may be on exam leave, new to the area, excluded from school, or educated at home. Or they may be on compassionate leave, perhaps because of a bereavement. Or it is possible that they are truanting, in which case you should contact the Children's Services Department with as much information as possible:
- where the child lives
- their approximate age
- where and when you saw them
- whether they were alone or in a group
- what they were doing
- whether they were in school uniform (if you don't recognise the uniform, at least make a note of its colour).
If you see a child committing a criminal offence, you should contact the Police.
If you see a distressed child that you think is being bullied, stop and ask why the child is upset. Get help from other adults passing by if you need to. If you’re still concerned, get a good description of those involved and phone the police. Don’t give up until you’re sure the child is safe.
It can be even harder to take action if you see a child being ill-treated by an adult. Sadly, many people accept this or think that it isn’t their business. Unless we are brave enough to act, attitudes will never change and children will continue to be hurt. Offer to help. If you try to be kind and positive, you will be doing the right thing. If your offer of help is refused but you are really worried about the child’s safety, get a good description and ring the police.
If you aren’t able to help a family you know who may be in trouble, or if you know of a child who may be in danger, please ring the local police, social services or the NSPCC Child Protection Helpline (tel 0808 800 5000 or Textphone 0800 056 0566).