Being more open about your job - and even showing your child where you work - might be an unusual way to banish dreaded separation anxiety for both youngsters and parents.
That’s according to Dr Lorna Bourke, a Principal Lecturer in Psychology at Liverpool Hope University and a specialist when it comes to primary school years development.
She’s concerned lots of mums and dads in the UK might still be suffering from ‘parental separation anxiety’ since schools reopened last month.
She describes it as the guilt and the anguish associated with parents forced to spend less time with their children after they stopped working from home and returned to offices - often unable to complete the school drop-off and pick-up.
Dr Bourke, an expert in cognitive and developmental psychology, says these feelings of guilt, and even shame, can lead to a ‘negative cycle’ that can really impact on the relationship between a parent and young person.
Now that the October half-term has ended, it might also pose new challenges when it comes to separation anxiety, particularly if parents aren’t able to take any time off work.
But Dr Bourke says a key tactic in warding off separation anxiety - for both children and parents - is to take the time to show your kids where you work and try to fill them in on precisely what you do.
Speaking specifically about primary school age children, she explains: “Separation anxiety is a two-way street and it can affect parents just as much as it affects children.
“And from my own recent professional experiences, parental separation anxiety has become a real issue for many mums and dads since the end of work-from-home guidance.
“You might have really appreciated the chance to spend extra time with your family during the pandemic and now feel as if the rug has pulled from underneath you somewhat after returning to your workplace.
“But it’s important you don’t let these feelings negatively impact your relationship with your child.
“And, for me, something that might really help is increasing the transparency about your work and profession to make the child more comfortable. Arming them with the knowledge that you have to be at work, and might not necessarily be able to drop them off or pick them up from school, is invaluable.
“Clearly this won’t work for everyone - and there might be certain dangers associated with the job you do that makes bringing a child there simply impossible - but if you are able to, even just bringing them to your workplace for half an hour or so will help take the pressure off the parent and make things more understandable for the child.”
Dr Bourke, who has also written extensively on working memory and writing skills in primary school children, says parents often neglect to talk to their kids about their jobs - something that could be a detriment to their overall relationship.
She argues: “If you’re not regularly talking to your child about the job you do, then you’re creating a disconnect that may prove problematic.
“Your child will naturally ruminate about what you do, where you are during the day, and also who you are when you’re not with them. A child suffering from separation anxiety will potentially ruminate on those ideas even more than normal.
“As a parent, you need to lift the lid on something the child might consider a big ‘mystery’ and physically show them where you spend your working life.
“On a fundamental level, it’ll strengthen the connection with your child. The lives of both you and your child revolve around you having to go to work.
“And remember that your job is actually a big part of your relationship with your child - and a part that’s potentially being glossed-over entirely.
“Even if your child only sees your place of work for a few minutes, it creates a deeper understanding, lifts the veil, and that could be really helpful in the long run.”
The experience might also be good for your professional life.
Dr Bourke, who spoke earlier this year about how the UK needed to be mindful of people who had mentally 'opted out' of physical contact during the pandemic, says: “Bringing your child into your workplace, for however short a period of time, makes that child real somehow in the eyes of your colleagues and might perhaps remind them of your responsibilities as a parent.
“We’re all equal in that we have job roles that we have to perform. But we’re not all equal in our circumstances. If you have caring responsibilities you might, for example, require more flexibility in the ways that you work.
“And actually allowing people to meet your child might help them to really visualise why this flexibility needs to be afforded sometimes.
“Just like you talking to your child, it’s all about building an environment of transparency. And remember that the child will be proud of you, no matter what you do.
“Some roles are easy to understand for a youngster - if you’re a doctor, or a police officer for example. But for other jobs, what you do is a completely abstract concept. To avoid separation anxiety in both you and the child, you want to try to make that abstraction much more concrete.”
Taking steps to demystify your working day might also protect your mental health - and your career trajectory - in the long run.
Dr Bourke claims: “Parental separation anxiety might also be accompanied by guilt - which is what we call a ‘moral emotion’. You want to try to work with a moral emotion, because by ignoring it you might also experience shame.
“In this instance, you’re feeling shame about something you can’t control. It’s irrational. Your job is very much part of what needs to happen for you to be able to function as a family.
“But it’s often hard to overcome those feelings and they can lead to negative consequences, such as you feeling more aggressive than usual, which clearly isn’t helpful.”
** Here Dr Bourke reveals some of the other ways you might be able to better connect with your child:
Try the ‘friend trick’:
Dr Bourke: “Lots of parents will complain that their child doesn’t really talk to them about their day once you pick them up from school or nursery. The child might say they’re too tired, or simply can’t be bothered, to go into any details.
“It can be disheartening for a parent when that happens because you need that information in order to be able to connect with them and to also help them with any problems they might be encountering.
“But a good way to actually get them talking is to invite a friend round to your home. Better yet, if you drive, have the friend sit in your car with your child as you’re making your way home.
“There’s a high likelihood that the two of them will chat non-stop all the way, sharing things you might never have heard before. And once you’re armed with that knowledge, it might be something you can build on in order to strengthen your relationship and nip any issues in the bud.”
Make it meaningful:
“You might spend time with your child, but is that time meaningful? An hour spent with them while they’re engrossed in their video game and you’re constantly checking your emails on your phone is not meaningful, and neither of you will get much from it.
“Better to choose a period where you can really afford to take a good hour away without any distractions. Try and do this before tea time if you can, as a child’s receptivity drops off a cliff after that point.”