Time Away From the Kids?!
An interview with Susan Stiffelman
TMC received a question from a reader, wondering about the consequences of leaving her young child for 4-6 days at a time, a few times a year. Whether business calls or sanity calls, we all know that sometimes we have to get away. And for some of us, a romantic holiday getaway is just what the doctor ordered! But how long away is too long? How can we make that separation as smooth as possible? How can we get past our guilt for leaving?
We mamas at The Mother Company sought out Susan Stiffelman, family therapist, and author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids while Staying Cool, Calm, and Connected, to answer this question that means so much to all of us. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC
What are your thoughts about a mother leaving her 3-6 year old 4-6 days at a time several times a year?
If you trace humans back to their earliest ancestors, they are tribal creatures. Children are meant to be raised in a tribe. That means, if we were raising our children in close-knit communities, they would have a number of very loving and healthy attachments with adults other than their parents. It provides parents with a break and a sense that they’re not parenting alone. It really is impossible to raise a child alone. It is too physically, emotionally, and psychologically demanding for one or two people to do without help and support. Ideally, a child grows up knowing in their bones that when their aunt, for example, is taking care of them instead of mommy, they are perfectly safe.
If the child has grown up with a sense that she is surrounded by loving, caring adults with whom she has developed healthy attachments, then from any age, a child should be at ease with their parent leaving for a short period of time. For a 3-6 year old, about 2-3 days — a week at the maximum, and that’s probably stretching it.
That said, the problem with our culture is that very few parents have a tribe-like support system around them. So, it’s really important for parents to intentionally create those kinds of loving connections with healthy adults in their child’s life.
When a parent is leaving for a few days, I would not recommend hiring someone for whom the child has no attachment – no matter how good her recommendations are. If the child barely knows the caretaker, then I think it could be very frightening for the child. A healthy attachment of the caretaker must be forged first. This can take weeks.
But, there is another factor to take into consideration, and that’s the personality of the child. It’s thought that about 15-20 percent of the human and animal population is on the spectrum of impulsive and hearty and about 15-20 percent are on the end of the spectrum that’s more anxious and sensitive. For a child that’s more hearty, she might not even notice the caretaker. Those kinds of children are interested in playing and they don’t really care who is around. But, for a more sensitive child, then 4-6 days could be a really long time and might leave them feeling a little bit wounded.
That said, I believe that our children will be wounded, despite parents’ best and most informed intentions. It’s unavoidable.
So for sensitive children, left with a caretaker they are not bonded to, what are the consequences?
It can add to anxiety and fearfulness. If they have a difficult time when the parent is away, they can start being afraid that the parent is leaving at any given time.
What about the benefits to the child, if the caretaker bond is good?
The children feel safer in the world. They know the world is a safe place because they’ve experienced it with and without mommy being present. They can develop a bit of heartiness. They get all the benefits from being exposed to different personalities and (different ways to cook a burger!)
Any suggestions for how to ease into spending time away?
I advise parents to start with a really long day away – giving the child a chance to be greeted in the morning by the caretaker, or put to bed by the caretaker. Then you build up to an overnight, and so on from there.
What if parents do the best they can, but their child still has a rough time?
Children are incredibly resilient. The biggest thing, is the importance of appealing to the child’s emotional, feeling, left brain. I call it “Act 1.”
But, mistakenly, most parents parent from “Act 2” which is directed at a child’s rational, left, logical brain. It’s a language based approach. For example, an upset child says, “Why did you go?” and the mother says, “I had to go because of work.” A kid doesn’t care about the actual reason when he is upset.
So I encourage parents to parent from “Act 1,” which is to behave empathically. This means, with very few words, you try to get the child to say yes, or nod their head at least three times.
For example, a child says, “Mommy, why did you go? I hate you!”
Mommy says, “You were mad that Mommy went, right?”
“You didn’t like to be left with grandma, right?”
“You had lots of big feelings that made you feel uncomfortable?”
You want the child to get the sense that you hear and understand him. So, you aren’t appealing to the child with logic (“but Mommy had to go for work,”) rather, you are empathizing and listening and reflecting back what the child is upset about. This helps to offload the emotion immediately, and prevents the child from carrying the emotion with him into the future.
Any words of comfort for parents who feel guilty about leaving their children?
Be kind to yourself. The guilt is just a symptom of the fact that your instincts are working. Our instincts are to be present for our children and to look after them. That’s a good thing. But, parents do have to be careful. Some of us come to parenting with a tremendously huge need to be needed, and our kids fulfill that for us. But, it can turn dysfunctional. So, some parents perceive their guilt, sometimes, as a reflection of how they’re being a good parent or somehow proves their love for their child. Guilt doesn’t do that. I suggest to parents to allow the guilt to be there and look for the message underneath it. (What is this feeling about? Is it a bittersweet, “gosh, it’s so hard to leave him. I want to be sure he’s safe.” or are there twinges of, “I’m the only one that can take care of him. I’m so needed.”)
Of course, parents are irreplaceable. There’s no question. But there is someone that can look after your child and she will be safe. And if you do go for vacation, for example, and therefore consider your time away an indulgence, go with all your heart. And call home — or not! (Depending on how that will affect your child.)
Susan Stiffelman, MFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, child expert and author of, “Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids while Staying Cool, Calm, and Connected.” She is dedicated to helping parents raise kids who are joyful, resilient and authentically themselves–without power struggles, negotiations, meltdowns and the various other thieves of joy that can interfere with a parent’s ability to enjoy the journey of parenthood. Her free newsletter can be found at www.parentingwithoutpowerstruggles.com.
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