Q. We will be baby-sitting our 3-year-old grandson for three weeks while his parents are on vacation. He is familiar with us and our house, but he has never been separated from his parents for more than a few days. What can we do to help him when he is missing his parents?
A. To a 3 year-old, three weeks can feel like forever.
Remember, E.T. longed for the comfort of his own home even in the midst of caring people. In his books on attachment theory, the English psychoanalyst John Bowlby explains E.T.’s behavior and that of children experiencing separation from their parents, suggesting that forming secure attachments with special individuals is basic to human nature.
Throughout our lives we instinctively respond to an unwilling threat of separation from familiar loved ones with anxiety, sadness or anger. Illness, fatigue, hunger or strange situations intensify these reactions. Bowlby observes that children who are separated from their parents experience three stages: protest, despair and, in the final stage, either adjustment or emotional detachment. These stages (not necessarily in that strict order) provide loose guidelines to interpreting a child’s behavior.
You may also expect some regression: baby talk, wanting a bottle, or soiling. Accept this (without scolding or punishment) as his attempt to handle stress. And, take heart, there are many things that you and his parents can do to alleviate the stress of temporary separation.
First, before they leave, discuss his daily routine with his parents. Lay down some ground rules. When is his bedtime? What is the bedtime routine? The morning routine? What about naps, snacks, bathing, his favorite foods, his dislikes and idiosyncrasies? What upsets him, and what helps him calm down? This information will help you create a similar, predictable schedule and avoid some pitfalls.
Seek the parents’ input, their preferences and suggestions. They need reassurance that you will be sensitive to their son’s needs; their comfort level will influence their son. Determine together how they will communicate with him. It is preferable that phone calls occur during the daytime so any longing their voices create can be diffused by activity.
Consider this an opportunity for creative solutions. Perhaps a trial run overnight will remind him of what it’s like at your house. Have him choose special things to pack in his suitcase (perhaps it’s a new one for this occasion). His parents can prepare him by telling him where they are going, showing some photos and, most importantly, assuring him that they will return and when. A calendar he can mark off each day while they’re away provides a tangible view of the return date. Get the phone numbers of his playmates so you can arrange play dates.
Taking care of a 3-year-old for three weeks is a tall order, and you need to conserve your energy. Get extra rest and clear your own calendar so that you are not overscheduled and can devote your attention to him. Your goal is to make him feel safe.
Dr. Lillian Carson