Whether parents work from home or outside the home, the time they can spend with their child is often limited and it will help if the child learns to become more self-reliant. It can be difficult getting children to play or do homework on their own while parents try to do their own work. And it can be heart-wrenching trying to leave while they cry and beg you to stay. Sadly, you must leave anyway, no matter how much your child protests. However, setting harsh boundaries when a child is unprepared for separation can have the opposite effect: instead of becoming more independent, a child may become more insecure, clingy, and unhappy.
Parents can set their child up for a fulfilling independent experiences using two highly effective strategies: First, they establish trust through making themselves available as much as possible, whenever possible, which helps the child know they can always count on their parent. Even in the little time parents have, they can consistently strengthen their bond by showing that they deeply care for their child’s feelings. Parental affection supports one of the most significant natural developmental processes — that of feeling safe away from the primary caregiver. If a child feels safe while with the parent, they are more likely to feel safe when the parent is away. The secure attachment that parents offer eventually helps the child become a healthy individual person.
Second, prepare play activity stations and ways for your child to meet some of their own basic needs on their own. Even a half-hour of preparation can contribute to many hours of independent play. A simple example of this is a lego and block play area, where your child also finds a water bottle and some light snacks. This, in turn, allows parents to have more time for their own needs.
Use the following suggestions to help your child become more independent:
- Spend quality moments together. Even if it’s just for a few minutes, make quality time with your child a daily priority. Try introducing a new habit: Each night, for 10 minutes (or whatever time span feels right), spend time together without an agenda. It’s not bedtime, dinnertime, or time to clean up — it’s simply “us-time.” Put away phones and tablets, drop your to-do list and explicitly say to your son or daughter, “These are our 10 minutes. I’m not going to do anything else but be here with you.” Then, let your child take the lead. Listen closely and see what they need and what elicits a smile. Your child might want to play together, show or tell you something or sit in your lap and cuddle with you. Initially, your child may be unwilling to connect with you, but patiently preserve these 10 minutes of your uninterrupted presence each day. Simply sit nearby and let them know you’re available.
- Carve out regular “us time.” At least once a week, schedule “us time” that your child can look forward to and where you do something together for a longer period of time, that’s not screen-related. Propose activities where you can interact, such as taking nature walks, undertaking a simple craft project, playing a board game, watching your child do something they love, or doing whatever makes your child happy. Make an effort to give your child your undivided attention and make your limited time together count. In this way, you create a deeper connection with your child that reduces separation anxiety, tension, conflicts, or tantrums. If your child can rely on and look forward to your special time together, there’s a good chance that goodbyes become less painful over time.
- Prepare flow play activity stations. Set up well-thought-out work and play stations that enable successful independent activities, where you child can experience the flow state of optimal learning. Create a place for schoolwork, possibly with a desk and soft floor seating, because many children need to move and change sitting positions frequently while they focus. Provide a water bottle and light snacks, so your child doesn’t need to call you when thirsty or hungry. Stock tablets, pen and paper, and whatever else your child might need. Apart from a homework place, make sure your child has access to hands-on play areas and that not all entertainment is on a screen. Depending on your child’s age and interests, create places for tinkering and crafting with a selection of crafting books and raw materials, such as paper, tape, scissors, shoe boxes, and buttons. Offer a place for puzzles, board games, block and pretend play, or a water play station where your child can experiment with colored water, funnels, and measuring containers. Experiment with various activity stations to uncover your child’s preferences. Parents often find that even their older children still like to play.
- Have a goodbye ritual. Make a ritual around your departures that allows some time for hugs and goodbyes. Perhaps sing a phrase of a song or recite a piece of a favorite poem. Once in a while, write a note on a post-it with a supportive message: “I’m proud of you!” or “You can do this!” You can also give your child a framed family photo or photo album to look at when they miss you. Know that usually younger and older children are comforted by stuffed animals, a crystal to hold in their hands, or a special blanket that’s like a warm hug.