There are times when parents of young children need to go out for errands, work, meeting friends or just me time, basically step out without the kids. It is such a dilemma whether to tell children and leave or just leave without telling them. Most of us worry that the child will start crying, clinging and make it impossible for us to go. If this happens too often, it’s normal for us to end up feeling irritated and frustrated, isn’t it?
So, a lot of us feel it is best to just not tell the child, let the caregiver distract them, and just sneak out, deal with their reactions when we get back.
Let’s look at this situation from the toddler’s point of view. They may be familiar with another caregiver, but if the parent, who they look to primarily for safety is not present it builds insecurity and fear in children. Separation from the mother or father is perceived as life threatening by the toddler. The brain sends out an alarm that gives them the message that they are unsafe, and they start crying,might get aggressive or submissive. Going away without telling our young children makes them anxious about when we might suddenly leave them again. It is a vicious cycle that makes toddlers cling more to their parents.
Research today tells us that, safety and connection are the two most important needs for humans, more so for children and their healthy development. Keeping this in mind, what can we do? Not go out at all?!
Don’t stress, we have some suggestions for you...
If and when you need to go out, start by preparing the child well in advance . Share the plan with them clearly about what to expect, “I have to go for a meeting this morning. Patti will be here with you. I will feed you breakfast and go, after you have had your lunch, and when you wake up from your nap, Amma will be home.” It is good to gently share this information multiple times. Now your child might still not be happy with you leaving, but the reason is that they will miss you, versus feeling unsafe without you. You could even think of leaving a comfort object with your child, maybe your picture, or dupatta, which the child can hold, to feel close to you while you are away.
Children might cry despite preparation. At such times, we can still acknowledge their feelings, “I know you will miss Amma, I will miss you too. It is so nice when we are together, and when I am not here you feel sad. I will be back in the afternoon, as soon as I finish my work.” When parents give that clarity of information, the acknowledgement of feelings, and reassurance of when they will be back, they give the child the feeling of safety, and are also building trust and connection. Parents could start with short separations and then plan for longer ones. Initially you can even tell the little ones before leaving them inside the home. “Appa, is going to take a bath. I will be back in ten minutes.” Or, when going to the store close by. “Amma needs to buy vegetables to cook dinner, I will come back in a bit.” When they miss you and cry for you, it is really useful for the caregiver they are with to also keep empathising with the child’s feelings. Many times, the caregivers may not want to hear the child cry so they try to distract the child with toys, games, stories, food etc. This only suppresses the child’s feelings and makes them more anxious. On the other hand giving the child the vocabulary and space, time to express his/her emotions really helps build their EQ.
Dear Parent, doing it this way does not guarantee that your child will be calm and receptive at that moment. Each child is unique, some might be calmer over time and some might still cling, cry and have difficulty letting go. Sometimes we may think or say ‘How many times have I told you?” OR, “ I cant keep repeating this, I have to go.” We expect the child to understand and comply, stop crying so much, after having explained a few times. When they cry yet another time, we feel frustrated or even manipulated. An important fact to keep in mind here, is that a young child or toddler’s brain is not fully developed. They are not physically and emotionally capable of higher cognitive skills such as logical thinking or problem solving. So each time the parent is away, is a brand new situation for them. Now what will stick with them, time and again, more than our explanations, is the acknowledgment of their sadness and fear of their mother or father not being with them. This way you are reinforcing the child's main need of security.
Lastly, having done to all of the above, when we do go out and come back, being mindful and greeting, reuniting with them with utmost attention, care and love, is also key. This really helps reinforce and strengthen our connection with our child.
This article is written by our team at Parenting Matters, an organisation which empowers parents to build deeper connection within families.