When your child cries because you are leaving, can you show empathy?

I received this email from a mother looking for guidance about how to handle her 4-year old’s behaviour when she has to leave the child to go to work, attend doctor’s appointments, etc. (The content of the email has been modified to protect the identities and privacy of the individuals.)

I have two children: a 4-yr old daughter and an 11-mon.-old son. From the day my daughter started talking she has been very dominant over me. For example, she cries everyday when I leave for work, she tells me that I can’t go to work, I can’t go to  appointments  etc. She wants me to stay home all the time. My husband and I both work outside the home. He works long hours with lots of overtime. I work shift work. She has a pretty routine life. Whenever I leave she begs me not to, and cries, and says how much she loves me, that she wants to come, that she will be a good girl. She will get very mad when I tell her no. She will repeat things to me that I have told her, regarding her behaviour. Also, bed time is another chore. She refuses, sometimes, to go to bed and wants us to lay with her every night and that has put a strain on our marriage.

I have major mom guilt for everything I do. I feel like I need to be with my kids all the time. Our youngest is also now crying when I leave for work and doesn’t want me out of his sight.

Looking for some guidance…

I wish that I could hug you and your children.

You have a very busy life. You and your husband work full-time and you have two young children. Stress is added because your husband sometimes works overtime and you work shift work. For your daughter, this is anything but a routine. It is confusing and stressful for her because she can’t figure out when her mom and dad will be home and when they won’t.

It’s important to see what is happening from your daughter’s perspective.

There are things that you can do to make it better.

First, ask yourself “Are you running on empty?” If your cup is empty, how can you nurture and take care of children? You can’t. If you have ever flown, you will remember that at the beginning of the flight, the attendant stands in front of you and gives instructions on what to do should an emergency occur: “When the oxygen mask drops down, if you have children with you, put the mask on yourself first.” You cannot nurture your children if you don’t nurture yourself. Or as an old lady I knew put it, “You can’t get water from a dry well.”

Parenting is energy-consuming. Assess your energy level. You need a high energy diet, small meals and snacks with protein in each one. Are you getting as much sleep as you can? Exercise is important. You don’t have to go to a gym. As few as 15 minutes a day walking or playing outside with your children can make a big difference.

One of the red flags that tells me that you probably feel overwhelmed and powerless over the situation, is that you seem to blame the child for the situation and for how you are feeling. “She has been dominant over me”, “wants me to stay home all the time,” “wants us lay with her every night and that has put a strain on our marriage.” This situation is not the child’s fault, nor is it your fault. No one is to blame. However, it is your responsibility to change how you are responding to your daughter. She is a preschooler who is dependant on you.

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” – Dalai Lama

Change yourself first. Become a mindful parent. This requires being aware of what is going on inside of you. Do you have a clenched jaw, a churning stomach? If so, deep breathe. Only when you are calm will you be able to help your child to become calm.

Your 4-yr. old is suffering from separation anxiety. She feels afraid because she knows you are leaving. She is not trying to manipulate you, but she can’t manage her anxiety alone. The anxiety that she is feeling can be as intense as the anxiety you would feel if you lost her at the mall.

Don’t punish her. Don’t make her suffer more than she  is already. Like all children, she needs to feel connected to you, her mother. This is an opportunity for deep closeness. Please don’t miss this opportunity. The child needs reassurance that she will be safe until you return. I’m sure that you don’t want her to feel like she is a burden just because she needs you. No one can take your place. This is not misbehaviour. This is a 4-year-old who feels scared and needs your kindness and empathy. You don’t want to make her feel bad for having human feelings.

The next time your daughter expresses anxiety and fear that you are going to leave her, I encourage you to:

  1. Role-model how to manage intense feelings by managing your own. Control yourself first. Take a moment to breathe deeply. Don’t judge what’s happening and don’t judge your child. Say to yourself, “This moment is what it is.”
  2. Engage with your child. Hold her close to you. Acknowledge her feelings and needs. You can say, “It looks like you are feeling scared that mommy is leaving. You wish that I could stay home and be with you.” Kids will do almost anything we request when we make the request with a loving heart.
  3. Then, when you are both calm, you can begin problem-solving. (Caution: Don’t rush to problem-solving until you are both calm.) You can ask her to think about what you both can do when you get home. You can give her something that will help her feel connected to you until you return. You can give her an all-day kiss. Put on some bright red lipstick and kiss the back of her hand. Give her your scarf, or a picture of you.

Kids will do almost anything we request when we make the request with a loving heart.

Sometimes you can prevent separation anxiety events when you recognize and meet her needs. She is a preschooler who needs: structure, enough sleep, substantial time with her parents, and to be heard. She needs to feel safe. Much of what we call a child’s misbehaviour is really about needs not met.

Finally, create departure and bedtime routines that are held sacred. Routines help children to feel safe.

Best wishes!

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