Managing Back-to-Work Adjustments
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It is often the case that a parent who has remained at home for many years chooses to return to work outside the home. The effect of this transition on any child depends upon the child’s age. Because the adjustment required for preschool and early elementary school children will be greater, we will focus on this age group.
A parent who has spent years at home often feels conflicted about his or her decision to return to the workplace. It’s invariably a complex situation, and essential that the parent understand that his or her child will grow through challenges provided the child receives parental guidance and help. In this situation, the parent represents someone who presents diverse interests and contributes to the world, in addition to his or her family.
Be Mindful of Guilt
Despite the fact that a loving parent will empathize with his or her child as return-to-work adjustments are taking place, it is essential that the parent avoid feeling guilt because the child will invariably recognize that the parent is feeling this way. When a parent experiences guilt, his or her child may read the situation as one in which harm is truly being inflicted, which will hamper his or her process of adaptation and growth.
Make Reunions Count
When parents join the workforce, the nature of the child’s day typically changes. Perhaps the child begins day care, after-school care or some other new care arrangement. The most important part of the day for a parent in this situation is the period of time when parent and child reunite at the end of the day. The child has stored up the challenges of the day without the presence of the parent, who knows him or her in a special way and can provide comfort and assistance in a way no one else can. That makes this coming together an especially important part of the day.
The child may need something extra from his or her parent at that time. Or, perhaps the child will collapse from the extra effort required to manage the day without Mom or Dad — or act clingy, fragile or a bit unreasonable for a time.
We advise parents to keep two things in mind at reunion time. The first is that the child will be most likely to grow from this experience if the parent is present for the child as much as possible for a sustained period of time. Although siblings may also need attention or certain errands may need to be run, we suggest that parents defer everything that can be deferred.
Our second suggestion is that parents provide as much leeway as possible in these situations. Certainly, strongly unacceptable behavior deserves comment or consequences, but there is always a gray zone, and we suggest veering toward comfort rather than reprimand within that zone.
Challenges are opportunities for growth. With sensitive responsiveness on the part of the parent who is going back to work, the return to the workplace can be an opportunity for children to expand their independence. As always, when a child continues to react for long periods of time to such a change, or doesn’t seem to thrive when away from the parent, professional advice or assessment is worth considering.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.