Two families reach out to Janet for help because they are struggling to get work done at home. Separating from their young children causes whining, crying and tantrums, which in turn interrupts and frustrates the parents. One parent writes: ”My son has significant tantrums about why daddy has to work… I really can’t take the tantrums anymore every time he sees or hears him.” With so many parents at home these days trying to navigate this dynamic, Janet offers 3 suggestions for how they can communicate respectfully with their children and help to establish boundaries.
Transcript of “3 Hints for Parents Working at Home”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to offer some ideas to help make working at home work better. I’ve received several questions about this recently, and I know that working at home is in many ways a privilege that a lot of parents don’t have. But even parents that work outside the home have to do work at home sometimes — housework or computer work, paying bills and things like that. So hopefully these ideas will help those families too.
Okay. So I’m actually going to read two notes that I received about working at home, and I’ll call them Family One and Family Two. Here’s Family One:
Hi, Janet. First off, I love your podcast and the RIE approach to childcare. I’m having a challenge that I imagine I’m not alone in right now and I would so value your insight. We finally got little bit of childcare help during these crazy COVID times, a very responsible, socially distancing high schooler is coming over two mornings a week to play with our two and a half year old while my husband and I work. I am now working from home a hundred percent and he alternates a bit going to the office and being at home. The challenge is that anytime our son isn’t getting what he wants or is upset for any reason and he is fairly mercurial in his moods, he comes upstairs to find me.
We have a gate at the top of the stairs and I’m working in the bedroom with the doors shut beyond that. But I just don’t really know the best way to approach this when I hear him yelling, Mommy, mommy,’ and the babysitter, doing her best to provide alternatives, distract, anything. I end up coming out to manage and refocus the situation, but it interrupts my workflow and undermines her authority, I think. But ignoring him feels disrespectful too. I’m just not sure what the best strategy is and would love your thoughts on the matter. Thanks.
All right. And here’s family two:
Hi, Janet. I’ve read several posts and books of yours but I’m still struggling. My three-and-a-half-year-old son is having difficulties with my husband working from home since April. My son has significant tantrums about why daddy has to work. My husband tries to stay in his office but often comes out for a break or to join us for a meal or play when he can. This is fantastic for the family but adds to the repeated daily tantrums about, ‘Where is daddy and why can’t he play?’ I try acknowledging his feelings of sadness and let him cry while repeating, “You’re sad, you miss daddy. Daddy is working.”Nothing seems to work, and I really can’t take the tantrums anymore every time he sees or hears him. This has been going on for months and doesn’t seem to have an end in sight with fall school work plans at home. Can you please offer any advice? Thanks so much.
Okay, so I want to talk about two important ways to facilitate working at home. The first one is: (1) the power of routine.
I’ve recently taken time off from doing phone consultations so that I can focus on some other work projects I have, but I’ve been continuing with a few long-time clients, and this one mom just had her third baby. And she was telling me on the phone the other day that she thinks I need to do a podcast all about scheduling, the power of scheduling, because she has discovered this recently and it’s changed everything for her. She and her husband both work and they live in an urban area and she had a maternity leave which is just about to end so she was home for a while. They only just recently were able to get their childcare person back. So they are privileged to have childcare.
But what this mom noticed was that when she was just there with the children on her own and then with the new baby even, she realized that having a schedule for the day was a godsend. It was the key to making naps work, to her children being better able to cope with the challenges of the day and to do all the things that she needed to do. Within reason. I mean, everybody’s noticing something that some of us noticed a long time ago and that’s that things aren’t smooth when you have children. And the more we expect them to be, the more difficult it can be for us, because our frustration tolerance is going to be lower and we’re going to be disappointed when the day invariably falls apart and surprises us and children don’t do what we want them to do or expect them to do.
But this parent found… She said in the old days, when her nanny was there, her children seemed to take their naps and do the things they needed to do. But with her in her husband on the weekends, it would always be kind of a a struggle. And that’s because they had a lot of outings planned and things they wanted to do and they did not follow a routine.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it just can make life harder. And when you do work at home and have those stretches of time to get things right, or even if you are a stay-at-home parent and you need to get things done, it is so helpful to be able to know that you will probably have this break coming up where your child is self-directing their play and doesn’t need you, even when they’re awake. So it not only works better for us that we have a rhythm for the things that we want to accomplish during a day, but our child is so empowered.
I have a post called “Empowering Our Babies With Rituals,” and it talks about, even with infants (or especially with infants), that rhythm that we find with them, and then stick to. This isn’t some schedule that we impose on a child that we’re deciding. It’s based on their needs and the rhythm that supports them — what they like to do when they first wake up, which is maybe have something to eat, or if they’re a baby, nursing or bottle feeding. So this isn’t something arbitrary we impose into our lives as parents, but rather something that we sensitively develop in accordance with our child’s rhythms.
And then as soon as possible, we communicate this routine to our child, beginning with babies. We say in the morning, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. After we change your diaper, we’ll go to your play space.”
For this mother that I had the phone consultation with, she said that her son who was in kindergarten last year, and it was online, she would have this time in the morning, first thing after breakfast, where he would do his “work.” I don’t know what it was exactly, assignments given by the teacher. And even her younger son, who is only a toddler, he would do something at that time that was more focused at a table. I don’t know if he was drawing or what he was doing, but they had that time that was “schoolwork.” And then they would play at home and then they would have lunch and naps and then maybe have an outing at the park. I didn’t really get into all those details with her, but she was so sold on this. It had changed her life so much and made her life so much easier. Especially with a newborn baby, she felt that this was supporting her so much and she could see how her two sons were thriving with this schedule.
So this routine where our child knows, and then we communicate with them, about what happens each day. Some people even like to do a visual schedule where they draw pictures and they can show the child on a chart, “Now we’re going to do this and now we’re going to do that.” That’s probably the only kind of chart I like for children. And what this is is a story that we tell our child that they get to live out each day and feel confident about, feel sure of, even the parts of it that maybe they don’t like as much, the part where they have to wash their hands before meals, and we all go do that together. They are able to feel more cooperative when they are empowered to know: This is what’s going to happen next. This story that I’ve heard is going to repeat itself. I know what’s going to happen in my world.
The world is so overwhelming to young children. They don’t have much control over anything, but through this schedule, this routine, they feel a sense of control, that they are on top of it.
And so where I would take this with parents working from home… Well, first of all, a lot of parents rebel against routines. They do not like having schedules. And I understand that. I think I’m that kind of person naturally. So I had to realize how important it was for my children and how important it was for me to know that I was going to, most of the time, get this nap time period where I could really focus and lose myself in something. I had to be convinced of this (and I think this parent I was speaking to did as well), to realize that that is more important than me getting to be spontaneous and take the kids and do whatever I want to do with them each day.
And we can still do that once in a while. In fact, giving our children that routine helps them to be more flexible when we break it once in a while. It’s a little counterintuitive. And my mentor Magda Gerber used to speak about this, that we might believe that if we take babies everywhere with us and don’t have a schedule that they will be more adaptable. But she said, “Actually no, it’s the opposite. It’s the child that is secure in their routine, has that little bit of control in their life, that is the child that can break the routine with more confidence.”
So yes, we are trading off that fun idea of getting to do whatever we want when we want it with our children and whatever mood strikes us. But the trade-off is worth it. And as this parent I just spoke with said, it’s been night and day for her.
What that also means for parents working at home is that that, even though we can pop out and say hi and that maybe feels really nice to us to be able to do that, it’s going to be harder for our child to not know and to be waiting: Oh, at any moment, my parents might be available.
And schedules aren’t about being on the clock so much as a sequence of events. So if my child knows that after their play time, then I’m out there to help with lunch, or maybe I’m not, maybe my partner is. Developing that consistency will help children not to be distracted by the idea that they might possibly have us at any moment — and so they’ve got to ask for that and wait for that and yell about that maybe, and feel uncomfortable around that. Therefore, not being able to sink into the play that’s so productive for them.
So that is something I would say to both of these families. And maybe this Family Number One is already doing this. It sounds like family Number Two isn’t because “Daddy’s been able to get together for a meal or play when he can,” this parent says. So while that seems like a plus, it’s getting in the way. It’s making it harder for their boy to let go of Daddy. So that is probably the most important bit of advice I would give to that second family.
Both of these families, it sounds like, are having a harder time with the second important idea that I want to share, which is something that if you’ve listened to this podcast, you’ve heard me talk about many, many, many times, maybe in almost every podcast: (2) letting the feelings be. And even more than just letting them be, I would actually encourage them. And this is the exact opposite of the way most of us are naturally wired.
We see our child who we adore, we see their feelings as a big problem that we have to fix instead of the most important thing they could share with us, the most important part of them for us to welcome. Because what children want most is to be seen and understood and allowed to be themselves, all sides of themselves. Which doesn’t mean that we allow them to have destructive behavior of any kind. We stop that. But the feelings behind that behavior, those need to be acceptable to us.
So in this first note, the parent says she has this high schooler that’s coming over two mornings a week and that any time her son isn’t getting what he wants or is upset for any reason, and he’s fairly mercurial in his moods, she doesn’t say how old he is, but I’m picturing a toddler, especially the “mercurial in his moods” part. It’s just a classic toddler thing. “He comes upstairs to find me,” she says. “We have a gate at the top of the stairs and I’m working with the bedroom door shut. He’s yelling, ‘Mommy, mommy,’ and the babysitter’s doing her best to provide alternatives, distract, anything.”
So what the babysitter is doing is the reaction that most of us would naturally have. She’s not comfortable with the feelings. And of course, this can be especially true when it’s someone else caring for our child, because they might worry that the parent is too uncomfortable, and therefore the caregiver has to make this go away for the parent to feel better. This is a high school student, but even for experienced caregivers, it is very hard to let a child grieve not getting what they want from the parent in a particular moment or not getting what they want, period. But this is exactly what this child needs to be able to do. And the more that we try to distract or give alternatives… It’s like us as adults trying to share something with someone, how upset we are, and they’re distracting and giving us alternatives. Children are no different in this way. They have the same need to express and have it be okay that they feel what they feel.
But what I would do as this parent is I would let the babysitter know that it’s not only okay with you, but that what you want for your child is for them to be able to be so mournful that their parent is on the other side of a door. It’s okay. That’s loving somebody. That’s adoring someone. It’s not going to hurt that child to feel those things. In fact, it will help them to feel better if we can support that. And he needs somebody to support it. So the babysitter can support it.
And then even the mother, if she feels like she needs to, she can say from the other side of that door, she can say, “Oh gosh, that is hard, isn’t it? I can’t wait to see you at lunchtime. In the meantime, thank you for sharing this with me. Thank you for sharing your feelings. I agree with you that this is hard for you. I want you to tell me about that as long as you need to, I still need to do my work.”
Instead of trying to make this disappear, make it better, make it go away… because it will keep coming back if we try to make it go away. That’s the thing.
So coming from a place of encouragement: “Yeah, you can share all that. I want you to. Tell me more.”
Instead of: I’m acknowledging your feelings so now you can stop. Because that’s where we might take this idea of acknowledging. Well, this is supposed to fix it if I just say this, so I’m just going to say it that way. I’m still uncomfortable. I’m still wanting you to stop. We have to really trust the emotions. It’s so hard. I know.
And I loved what Magda used to say. “Babies have a right to cry.” Children have a right to say they don’t like something. Let’s empower them to do that and show them that they’re safe to do that and that we welcome it with open arms.
So when this mother says that “I end up coming out to manage and refocus the situation,” that sounds like another way of her trying to fix it somehow and make it better.
Which again might work for a moment, but it’s not going to work in the bigger picture as this parent is discovering. As she says, “It interrupts my workflow and undermines the high schooler’s authority.” That’s right. But I would give the high schooler the permission and the instruction, also acknowledging with her how hard it is: “Yes, it’s really, really hard to hear him, but this is what I want you to try to do. Let him grieve.”
And you know what that also does? It will bond him to this caregiver, which is exactly what we want for our children when they have other caregivers. We want them to develop secondary attachments with them. It does wonders for a child’s confidence to know that they have people beyond their parents that they can trust. And I have experienced this so many times with other people’s children that were in classes with me or that I even just came to consult with for a couple of hours. Trust is built when we bravely encourage those uncomfortable feelings, it’s almost like an instant bonding taking us to another level in our relationship with the child. In the moment, it can feel so mean, right? It feels nicer to distract you and get you to stop. But that’s not the truth. The truth is that it is the most loving, generous, heroic thing that we can do.
So with this second family, it sounds like she’s on the right track but she’s not quite there. When she says she’s trying, “I try acknowledging his feelings of sadness and let him cry.” That tells me that, and I could be wrong, of course, because I don’t have a lot of information here, but that tells me that she’s maybe trying to acknowledge as a way to try to make it better instead of to really and truly all the way welcome the feelings about daddy. Even if he saw daddy one minute before, or with this other family, his mother played with him for an hour, and now two seconds later, he’s still feeling like this. So we might want to say, “Well, mom was just with you,” or, “You were just with daddy. You’re going to see him in a minute.” That reasonable way that we see things as adults. But the child feels the feelings anyway. So we need to trust and allow it all the way, ideally.
Children are very dramatic in these ways. They go all the way with things. I love that about them. The passion, right? The passion for this dad. I mean, how wonderful that the dad is so adored by his son! It’s okay to feel that, it’s safe.
But in the middle of the feelings, she calls these tantrums, that’s when I especially wouldn’t talk too much, because your child isn’t hearing it. All they’re feeling is pushback. Again, we may not even know we’re doing this, but they’re feeling you pushing back against what they’re expressing. I would wait. I would let your shoulders drop. Just maybe nod your head. Think acceptance. Think let the feelings be. It’s okay. Tell yourself that. Relax, breathe, know that this will pass, the waves always pass eventually.
And it will happen much less if I let it happen all the way. If I don’t push back on it at all. That’s how children clear feelings and are able to move out of them. It’s really the only way that a young child can do this.
So I know this parent says she can’t take the tantrums anymore. And I do understand that. I would spend some time thinking and focusing and meditating on letting them be, and the power of them to bond you, the power of him expressing feelings to make him feel better, to be able to function better. It’s a big load that children carry around sometimes when they can’t share their feelings all the way. We can relieve children of that load, but it takes reframing and it takes courage and patience and acceptance — letting go of fixing and doing and making it better.
So again, I would have Daddy come out at routine times just to make this a lot easier for her son. That is a kind of fix that will help. And then when he does have to say goodbye to daddy, let it rip, let him do it. Let him feel that all the way, in your loving, safe presence.
A lot of times when we feel like: I can’t take the tantrums anymore, it’s because we’ve put this pressure on ourselves that this is a problem that we have to fix. So then, yes, tantrums feel like this frustrating experience, like we’re failing.
Of course they’re going to bother us because it’s our baby. When my adult children are upset, it’s unbearable to me on one level, but I’ve learned how important it is for them and for me to allow them that space. So take this burden off your shoulders, take this burden off the high schooler’s shoulders of having to see this as a problem or a responsibility that they have to do something about. They really don’t.
And one more tip I want to share quickly is that when you can be with your child during the day, (3) be fully present without distraction. It’s very difficult for children to let go of us ever if they never really have us all the way. And these ideas will help work of any kind at home flow better. And actually everything flow better for young children.
So I hope some of that helps.
For more, both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can also get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or Barnes and Noble, and in audio at Audible.com. As a matter of fact, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.
Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.