The challenge of being physically present, but not available
The New Year arrived, and instead of the end of the pandemic that we all hoped to see, we find ourselves in the middle of another lockdown. For many parents, this means that their working from home days are far from over. Add to this the breaking news that the opening of schools is delayed, and many parents are probably feeling despondent.
It is important to know that this is not only challenging for parents. Children can find it very difficult to cope with their parents being home, and being physically present, and yet being emotionally and practically unavailable. Many parents may be unaware of the confusing messages which they may be giving children at this time of home-based working during lockdown. This is especially true for smaller children. Françoise Harrison, Paediatric Occupational Therapist offers more perspectives.
What do babies want?
Babies and children are emotionally wired to expect their parents and adult carers to give them their full, and undivided attention as and when they try to engage with them or to communicate their needs. They trust and anticipate that their needs will be met right away, and they usually find it very hard to cope with not getting a caring response immediately.
Babies and young children, in particular, struggle to cope with a delayed or deferred response from their parents. The lack of response leaves them confused and vulnerable and may result in considerable emotional insecurity and uncertainly.
Babies who do not get the friendly, nurturing response which they anticipated will likely stop trying to engage in their usual happy way. They may instead try to communicate their need in other ways since their usual calling or vocalizing has not worked. They may begin to shriek in a high tone, or they may begin to cry. Some babies might become distressed, and may even withdraw and appear introverted, rather than crying.
Parents might be tempted to think that they are teaching their babies to be patient and to wait for attention. This could not be further from the truth. Babies who have their needs met, learn to become trusting. These positive experiences help them to develop emotional security. Such secure babies attune and bond emotionally with their parents. In time, they can learn to develop patience, secure in the knowledge that their parents care, are usually attentive, and that their needs will be met.
So how do you manage juggling work and parenting?
- Ideally, you and your partner should plan to work in tandem, so that one of you is more available to attend to the children.
- Avoid, or seriously limit TV and screen media, especially for children under 2 years of age.
- If you are able to have a caregiver or another family member to assist with childcare, this is really helpful!
- Ideally, you should try to work in a different room, or in a different part of the house, so that your youngster learns that when you are not present, you are working, and unavailable and that someone else will take care of them.
- If at all possible, take frequent short breaks to be with your child, and to offer them a short spell of your undivided attention, with a promise to return later.
- Talk to your baby or to your young children and do your best to explain, that you are home, but that you have work to do. Explain that you will make time to read a story, or to spend time doing something special, and then ensure that you take short but frequent breaks to spend uninterrupted time with your child.
- We all have become so good at replying without making eye contact when we are busy working on our devices. This is most confusing for children, who need the emotional affirmation of eye contact to feel that they have been heard. Take a moment to connect with your child using physical contact, by firmly squeezing the child’s arm or leg, and explain again that you are working, and that you will soon do something together.
- Wherever possible, avoid showing frustration at being interrupted by your young child. In time, as you take the time to do the special things together, your child will begin to understand how it works, and that he is not being neglected, in spite of your being right there!
- In the case of toddlers and older children, it is really helpful to plan their routines for mealtimes, daytime naps, walks outdoors and to the park as well as a variety of activities for play and exploration.
- Plan your work schedule and short breaks around their routines, wherever possible. Avoid falling into the trap of providing entertainment for young children. This can become an unhealthy routine where children come to expect that they will be offered things to do. It also becomes an expensive way of managing working from home! Rather, provide opportunities for explorative play situations where children learn to amuse and entertain themselves.
Managed well, working from home can be a special time with unexpected opportunities for connecting with your baby or young child! Keep it simple and never lose your sense of humour!