Dear Joanna and Julie,
My son is 3 years old and he gets really nervous and sad when I leave for work. Once a week he stays with his grandma and it’s okay (not always but nearly).
However when he stays with his nanny (three days a week) he is “traumatized”. He starts crying, shouting, and imploring that I stay home. The nanny says that often when I am not there he asks for me and gets really sad.
I tried explaining that I go to work because we need to have a roof above our heads, because we need to have something on our plates to eat, we want him to be able to go on vacations and discover the world, and furthermore I like working as much as he likes going to school. (I don’t want him to grow up thinking that working is difficult and boring. I want him to feel that working is cool and rewarding.) I even tried telling him I’d prefer to stay with him if I could. Nothing works.
The same story starts again every week. I would be pleased to get your advice on this.
Dear Working Mom,
We understand your impulse to explain to your son the reasons why you go to work. They are all such good ones! But no doubt you’ve noticed that emotions can’t be explained away. A sad three-year-old is unlikely to say, “Gee, Mother, now that you’ve laid it out so logically, I can see that I need to put my personal feelings aside and take a broader perspective.”
The most helpful thing you can do for your son is to acknowledge his feelings. Not when you are under pressure right before you have to leave for work, of course, but when you can find a peaceful moment to sit down with your son. Set aside your explanations and logic and focus on his feelings instead.
You might try saying something like:
“I’ve been thinking, you really don’t like it when I leave you with the nanny!”
“It makes you so sad, you feel like holding me tight so I won’t go!”
“You don’t want me to go off to a stupid job.”
“You’d rather have me stay home with you every day.”
Give your son time to reply and encourage him to air all his objections. Reflect what he’s saying in your own words so that he knows you understand and accept his feelings.
“Oh, so sometimes that nanny makes you mad! You don’t like it when she says you have to finish everything on your plate! You’d rather be the one to say when you’re hungry and when you’re full.”
“Ah, and you don’t like having to take a nap. It’s boring and you don’t feel sleepy. You’d rather watch a show on TV.”
It might help to make a written list of his grievances:
“Wait a minute; let me get a paper and pencil. I want to write down all the things that bother you.”
Your son will appreciate hearing his list read back to him out loud with plenty of emotion! Once he’s feeling thoroughly heard, you can try problem-solving:
“I wonder if there’s anything we can do to make the time with the nanny more fun, or at least less awful. Let’s make another list.”
On this new list you can write down ideas for special activities your son might enjoy doing with the nanny – make play doh, finger-paint, bake cookies, make an obstacle course – as well as his suggestions for what not to do. He may want to keep a picture of you, or some other special talisman, in his pocket. Be sure to write everything down, including ideas you find completely unacceptable. (Quit your job! Lock the nanny in a closet!)
Afterwards you can go through the list together and check the items you both like. Then you can put your new plan into action.
If you put aside explanations of how important it is for you to work, and instead begin by acknowledging your child’s feelings, you may find out that there’s a simple problem you can resolve with a simple solution. Or you may find out that the problem is deeper. It’s possible that there’s something more seriously unpleasant going on during his day with this nanny. One powerful effect of this approach is that you will find out more from your child. Accepting feelings isn’t just a way to help your child to calm down. It can yield important intel!