When a Parent Returns to Work

When the nature of your day changes, so does your child's
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It is often the case that a parent who has remained at home for many months or years chooses — or needs — to return to work. As with most changes in a family, the age of the child or children will determine the best ways to approach and handle this transition. Because the adjustment required of preschool and early elementary school children will be greater, we will focus on this group.

If you have spent years at home with your child, you may feel conflicted about your decision to return to work. It’s a complex choice to make, and therefore essential to understand that children grow through the challenges they receive help with. This is an opportunity for you to model that you have diverse interests and contribute to the world, in addition to your family. 

Despite the fact that a loving parent often shares in the resentment and other negative feelings a child experiences as he faces this kind of change, it is also essential that you avoid the trap of guilt. If you feel guilty, your child will invariably know and may read the situation as one in which harm is truly being inflicted, which could hamper his process of adaptation and growth.

When you join/rejoin the workforce, the nature of your child’s day will most likely change. Perhaps your child will begin day care, after-school care or some other new care arrangement. In this situation, the most important part of the day for you to focus on is when you reunite with your child at the end of the day. She has stored up challenges throughout the day without the presence of the parent who knows her in a special way, and who provides comfort and assistance like no other person can. Therefore, this time of coming together is especially important. 

Your child may need something extra from you at that time. Perhaps he collapses from the extra effort required to manage the day apart from his parent so he becomes clingy, fragile or unreasonable for a time. 

We advise parents to keep two things in mind during this reunion. First, your child will most likely grow from this new and challenging transition if you are as present for him as possible, and for a reasonably sustained period of time. Although things cannot be controlled (there may be siblings who also need attention, or certain tasks that may be necessary to attend to), we suggest that you defer everything that can be deferred. 

Second, provide as much leeway as possible during these situations. Certainly unacceptable behavior deserves comments or consequences, but there is always a gray zone and, within that zone, we suggest veering toward comfort rather than admonishment.

Challenges are opportunities for growth. With sensitive responsiveness on the part of you, the parent, your return to the workplace should be an opportunity for your child to expand her independence. 

As always, if your child continues to react negatively to your return to work for months and months, or doesn’t seem to be thriving away from you, 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. 


Categories: Family, Solutions, Work-Life