How to Handle a Kid Experiencing Separation Sadness

Dear Kid Whisperer,

My wife just went back to work in an office after working from home for the last year. I am still working from home and am also taking care of my three-year-old son. Whenever my wife leaves the apartment, he completely freaks out. He screams and yells and tries to will himself through our front door to follow her. He cries for hours as I try to tell him that she will be back, that she misses him too, etcetera. I’m not sure where to go from here. -Mike, Nashville, Tennessee

Dear Mike,

This is a terrible situation, but it doesn’t have to be.

I’m going to tell you exactly what to do here, but first you may need a paradigm shift.

Your kid screaming and yelling because he misses his mom doesn’t mean you did anything wrong, and it doesn’t mean that you need to make him feel less badly about the situation. It also doesn’t mean you should try to solve this problem. This may be comforting because, obviously, you can’t solve his problem. Mommy has to go to work and your kid has to stay in the apartment. Furthermore, your kid should be upset, and he should probably cry. He’s three and he misses his mom. Absolutely none of this situation is hurtful for your kid! He will not be permanently traumatized because his mom left the apartment.

This is life: bad things that we don’t like happen all the time. These things make us sad and frustrated. We have emotional reactions to them. We learn how to deal with these situations and our feelings.

Trying to solve the problem by upending your morning every day and explaining to a three-year-old that Mommy is not leaving forever is silly, unmanageable, and ultimately hurtful. As much as this may hurt your heart, this situation is your kid’s problem, not yours. Problems are gifts because they help us to grow and learn. If you just empathize and leave your kid alone, he will grow and become stronger through this difficulty. If we own a kid’s problem by stopping our lives in order to try to change the laws of time and space or explain away what is simply a normal, upsetting situation, we express a low opinion of our kid’s ability to persevere while making everyone’s lives harder.

Here’s how I would handle your daily situation as my wife closed the door:

Kid: BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!

Kid Whisperer (with sincere empathy and without stopping the cleaning of my wife’s breakfast dishes): Oh, no.

Kid: BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

Kid Whisperer: Oh, no.

Kid: BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

Kid Whisperer: Oh, no.

Kid: BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! (Kid starts breaking stuff)

Kid Whisperer: Oh, no. (Kid Whisperer takes stuff out of Kid’s hands, picks up Kid, and carries Kid to a room that has been made to be technology and danger free).

Kid Whisperer: Oh, no. Come back as soon as you can be safe.

If Kid comes back and is safe, he can stay. If Kid comes back and is unsafe, he is taken back to the room while the same script is used. If the yelling turns into a long-term tantrum that stops you from being able to get work done, you can use the same script and change the word “safe” to “calm” and enforce that limit exactly the same way.

Even at three years old, it’s important for adults to make kids know that we love them, that their problems are their own, and that we know they can handle those problems.