How Long Can We Be Away From Our Toddler?
Trying to explain to a toddler that you are planning to be away for a few hours, for a week or longer will have little effect on the toddler’s ability to tolerate the separation. The toddler’s sense of time is very, very limited. Intervals of time are conceptualized more in terms of the frustration or gratification of immediate needs such as hunger.
The best way to prepare your toddler for separations is to limit absences to the length of time that the toddler can tolerate them without undue anxiety. See the guidelines below, and be sure that the adults who will be caring for them in your absence are trustworthy and known by the toddler.
But parents have needs, too, including breaks from the vigorous demands of raising a toddler.
Unfortunately, the parents' needs to work and play are not always in sync with the toddler's need for continuity. Consequently, the answers which I provide to parental questions about separations are not always the ones they would like to hear. The following intervals are general guidelines written from the point of view of the optimal promotion of normal development in the toddler. A pattern of prolonged absences is more likely to be detrimental than a single or occasional one.
During the first 3 years of life, parental absences should be limited to 1 or 2 days. If one parent must be away for a longer period, the other parent should make every effort to be present. I know, you thought I’d say it’s OK to be away for a longer period than that. Sorry, I wish I could. But we both want the same thing -what’s best for your toddler.
Despite the toddler’s limited ability to understand time, what is about to happen should be communicated through language.
For instance, “Danny, Mommy is going to the store. I’ll be home in a few hours. Lucy (baby sitter) will be here with you.”
For an overnight absence by both parents the comment might be, “Danny, Mom and I are going to sleep at a hotel tonight. We’ll call you on the telephone when we get there. You’re going to stay here with Granny.”
Separations from older children: Although not the subject of this book, parents of older children may find the following guidelines helpful. The length of the absence increases as the child ages because of the increased capacity of the child to feel secure on their own. Even though adolescents act like they couldn’t care if you were dead or alive, they still need you, too!
Between the ages of 3 and 6, this interval can be comfortably extended up to several days, depending upon the tolerance of the individual child.
Most elementary school aged children can manage absences of 1 week or more without undue anxiety or regression.
Separations at any age are more manageable for the child if they are cared for by adults whom they know very well.
Normal early adolescents have a well-developed sense of self and other and are not vulnerable to parental absences in the sense described for younger children. However, they are in continuous need of the structure, judgment, and limit setting which their parents provide. Consequently, mature caretakers should be provided in the event of parental absence.
Sometimes it’s not just the toddler who struggles with separations. Joe and Linda needed a break. They had not been away since Susan was born 18 months ago. They loved their child enormously. But they fell into bed exhausted every night after having worked all day and spending every evening trying to keep up with Susan’s boundless energy. If they didn’t set a bedtime, she would stay up until she became physically exhausted, collapsing on the floor. Grandmother was all too happy to care for Susan for a few days and encouraged the couple to spend time without Susan. They decided to drive up the coast and immensely enjoyed their first day away. However, by day 2, they began to sorely miss Susan despite the fact that several phone calls to Grandma indicated that Susan was just fine. As day 2 progressed, each passing hour became less enjoyable. By the next morning, after sheepishly acknowledging that they desperately missed Susan, Joe and Linda got in the car and drove home without stopping, arriving in time for Susan’s bedtime.
Tom and Betty decided to take a 3 week vacation to Europe, leaving 30 month old Jason with Betty’s parents. They kept in touch by phone and Skype sessions. Tthough they missed Jason, they greatly enjoyed the alone time with one another. However, upon their return, they were surprised when Jason ignored them and clung to his grandmother. For a few hours, Jason seemed uncertain of who his parents were. Once he did recognize them, he became clingy and cranky for several days before returning to “his old self.”
See Guiding Your Toddler's Development