PTO: Parenting Time Off

When we were first talking about this article, Patti mentioned that she needed to teach her kids personal space. It seemed like every time her girls needed something, they would physically crawl all over her. While this is cute with babies, twin toddlers coming from all sides feels a bit like quicksand.

Let’s face it. Parenting is a full-time job. There’s no such thing as taking a real break from it. So, when it comes to catching some R and R for a moment, how do you tell your kid?

But First, Get Rid of The Guilt

Asking for a bit of space away from your kid, whether that be 5 minutes or 5 days, can set off guilt or even shame. We are here to tell you that wanting time off is COMPLETELY OKAY. It’s normal. Parental burnout is real and building in some time for yourself to reset or to do what you love is part of who you are.

In fact, when you allow yourself to cater to other parts of your life, such as your career, personal relationships, and your own mental/emotional/physical well-being, you are modeling that people can have many other roles and dimensions, not just being a parent. You also provide your kids the time to learn and do things independently, as well as teach them to respect other people’s time and personal space.

Despite our need for some personal time, it’s hard to request it from our kids. Here’s a few reasons why:

The Ties That Bind

Babies are hard-wired to bond with their caregivers to guarantee survival. As they become toddlers, they learn that the world can be scary. Their sensory systems are maturing, becoming more attentive to their surroundings, and investigating new sensory stimuli. Their thoughts begin to incorporate “what-ifs” as they enter pretend play, which can result in irrational fears. Because they’re able to discern familiar faces from others, stranger danger for them is at an all-time high and they heavily rely on us when they encounter unfamiliar or unpredictable situations. This explains why they have a crying fit when you’re out of sight, even when it’s to use the bathroom.

Look at the Time

Phrases like “5 more minutes” don’t make sense to a kid until they are 4-5 years of age. In fact, time is a concept that our kids can’t fully comprehend until they are 10 years old. However, routines, basic sequences, and time-related words all help to provide the foundation for understanding it.

For example, toddlers begin to figure out time with daily routines. As they begin to complete simple tasks, they start understanding sequences (first, then, last) and the length of time it may take (long or short time). During times of impatience, phrases like, “Wait”, “Not yet,” or “One moment,” help them acknowledge the presence of time and the delay before their wants/needs are satisfied. Eventually, they begin to know what a “minute” (soon) or an “hour” (later) feels like.

I Need Some Space

The concept of personal space is also not fully understood until a child is around 3-4 years of age, when they have developed a strong sense of their physical self (thanks to their vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile systems). Additionally, the connection between the amygdala (responsible for responding to threats) and the frontal lobe (in charge of logic and reasoning) by way of the medial frontal cortex is in the process of being established. Once complete, they’ll be able to see themselves, figuratively and literally, in relation to other people and objects within their environment. Until then, it can be tricky for your child to grasp and respect the idea of privacy or leaving loved ones alone when asked.

How to Request Time and Space Away

Yes, taking time away from your kids at this age can be difficult. Remember to be consistent and firm to establish that boundary, but also reassure them that you will be back.

  • Define physical boundaries. Your little one may not comprehend a verbal request of wanting some time away, but they do understand a visual cue of a baby gate or a closed door. They cannot enter that area without someone opening it for them.  
  • Man the stations. If your kid looks to you for entertainment, try setting up play stations or centers. These are areas where your child can spend at least 10 minutes (or more) playing independently. For example, you may have a kitchen station that has all their play pots/pans/food, a library where they have an assortment of books to choose from, or an art station for their arts and crafts.
  • Tick tick tick. Invest in a timer (think egg timer, countdown clock, or an hourglass) that can show your child a concrete and visible representation of the passing of time, explaining to them that once it dings or time is up, you will reappear ready to play and snuggle. For longer time apart, you can use a calendar and mark the day you will be back.
  • Sequence of events. Rather than giving your kid a time frame, try using a chain of events to help understand time. For example, “After mommy folds the laundry and puts it away, we can go outside.” Same thing for longer time away. You can say, “Mommy will be back on Friday when you get home from school.”
  • Replace nap time with quiet time.This is something we do in our household and it’s worked pretty well so far. When our son no longer cared for naps, we told him that he has that time to do whatever he wants to do by himself. He takes that time to create Battlebots, read books, or do some artwork.
  • Be honest with them. If you need a moment to rest or complete a task, let your kid know. They can figure out what to do without your help. It might sound like, “I really don’t like when you pull on mommy like that,” or “Hey, I’m really tired right now. I’ll be on the couch for a few moments and then we’ll go find your toy.” For extended time away, like a work trip or a long weekend, you can explain that you have to work or that you need to spend time with a friend.
  • Call for backup. Ask your village of family, friends, neighbors, or sitters/nannies you trust to relieve you so you can get the time you need to recharge or get things done. Patti finds that for trips when she and Troy are both gone, they get the girls excited for a visit with Grandma. You can somewhat deflect the separation anxiety with the excitement from being with another loved one.

We work so hard to establish a secure attachment with our kids, but part of that security is letting them know that we will always be back. We definitely don’t want to ghost our kids. Establish that no matter what happens, they will be fine and safe. You will also be fine as well.


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