Children's Common Social Responses to Parents Working Away

Children’s common social responses to parents working away

Children whose parents leave the family home for work can experience a wide range of emotions. Young children can struggle to verbally express their feelings and frustrations and instead demonstrate their emotions through a range of actions and behaviours. Social responses are actions and behaviours relating to the child's interactions with others around them, including the at-home parent, educators and their peers. 

What Responses Children have to Parental Absence

Children's social responses to change may include:

  • withdrawal, self-isolation
  • excitement about making new friends
  • independence and self-reliance
  • heightened attachment to the at-home parent
  • pride in the parent’s work
  • struggles with routines
  • clinginess (not wanting to separate from the parent, even though they may not have been an issue before)
  • not wanting to play with friends because they are clinging to an adult or want to be close by an adult
  • disinterest in activities they normally enjoy
  • anxiety
  • additional defiance and aggression.
Children may begin to show reluctance to attend activities they previously enjoyed. This could include not wanting to go to their early childhood service, not wanting to attend playgroup, mothers' group or other regular outings. This impacts the at-home parent, making it more challenging for them to maintain their social connections and their ability to get care. This can also limit a parent's ability to attend to other work or household needs or make them feel guilty about having time out from their caregiving responsibilities.  Many parents socially withdraw, such as from playgroup or other activities, just to keep the peace. 

toddler in blue hooded jacket

At home, routines may also be affected. The child may withdraw from regular home routines such as self-directed activities, TV, toys and playing with siblings. This is because the routines that frame their day have changed without a great deal of notice or their understandings are limited. They feel undermined or confused, affecting their agency. Children can also be acting out of a need to establish some personal control of their environment. They had no control over a parent going away, but they might try to recover some sense of control by refusing to wash their hands before dinner, or other small acts of defiance at home or in the early childhood setting.

Home, At Home, Decoration, Wood, Canvas


Additionally, children may demonstrate clingy behaviour with adults and choose to isolate themselves from their peers. As young children’s social abilities are still evolving, children from families who are experiencing changes may gravitate towards adults (rather than their peers). This may be because adults are more likely to be understanding of the child’s needs, and they may be wanting more adult attention if a parent is away. If the child is finding it hard to separate because of the transition (or something else), there are ways to support them. Explore what might be behind the clinginess. A conversation about feelings is important so the child knows that it is okay to feel sad. Ensure you have this type of conversation in an unhurried, safe environment. Sit next to the child to do this, rather than face to face, to avoid confrontation. Start with ‘I noticed that....’.


Children may also demonstrate a reduced ability to cope with the everyday frustrations that occur with peers. This is due to the huge changes that have occurred at home, leading children’s emotional and social ‘glasses’ being full to overflowing. This means that any small upset or change, such as a friend saying ‘no’ to them, can result in emotional outbursts and further withdrawal.  There is a reduction in their patience, or a willingness or ability to understand. This irritability can cause further tensions with peers and at home.

Additionally, children may demonstrate clingy behaviour with adults and choose to isolate themselves from their peers. As young children’s social abilities are still evolving, children from families who are experiencing changes may gravitate towards adults (rather than their peers). This may be because adults are more likely to be understanding of the child’s needs, and they may be wanting more adult attention if a parent is away. 

2 boys lying on the ground


Children may choose to self-isolate for extended periods of time. If they do this, there are a number of strategies you can try.

Sit next to the child (not face to face) and talk to them about what they are doing. Why are you sitting by yourself, or what are you doing here? Respect that they may be managing their behaviour by being by themselves when they are feeling sad, worried, disappointed or angry.

Children can be asked to let you know what they are feeling or draw a picture of what they are feeling. ‘I am sitting by myself because.....’

girl in yellow dress sitting on rock during daytime

Ask them, 'What are some other ways that might make you feel better?' e.g. playing a game with their peers with their favourite activity.

Let them realise there are different ways of coping with feelings. Behaviour needs to be separated from the child, ‘I have noticed that you are by yourself’, rather than 'You're a loner today', or 'You're always by yourself lately'.

You can also try visual prompts to help them to express how they are feeling. These might be some emoji's, or pictures of people's emotions. e.g. I feel ‘sad’, ‘annoyed’, ‘disappointed’, ‘angry’.

Activities for 5-8 year-olds

In the Children's Resources, there is a book called Where is Work? Harry's Story. On page 24, you will see the characters showing many different emotions when their parent works away. You can match the emotions and ask your child what they are feeling.

If you can, use pictures with words to show those emotions. Once they can choose the word with your starter sentence, ‘I am feeling...’ then exploring those feelings and their responses can be achieved. Finding different ways to respond can flow on from there.

For  9-12 year old children

1. Conversations

If you notice the child is not themselves or feeling out of sorts, ask the child open-ended questions about how they feel when their parent works away or when they are working different shifts, which disrupt family routines. Print out a feelings wheel or look it up online. Once they express an emotion, have a look at the wheel to see the others within the same colour, then use that as a prompt to gather more information and discuss what underlying challenges they are facing. Ask closed questions to clarify information. 'Are you feeling sad that Mum isn't picking you up today as she had planned?' Then, you can deepen the conversation using the wheel.

If the child is open to role play, give them the opportunity to choose their role in playing out a family scene. They could be the parent or themselves in the scenario. Giving them control over this lets them express their feelings in a safe way and can also create empathy.

You can also explore using the whisper technique where the others in the role play (for example, the educator) can ask questions in a whisper to clarify how they would act in certain scenarios.

The whisper technique involves 'creating the opportunity for the child to lead... (you can) use a whisper tone of voice to say, "What would you like me to do?" or "What would you like me to say?" (This returns) responsibility for the direction of play to the child...(and) listen and respond accordingly' (from this site)

2. Craft activity

After looking at the feelings wheel, ask them which colours speak to them about their feelings that day. Then, they can explore, paint, draw, write or sculpt using those colours to show how they are feeling.

Draw who is in your family. Follow this with open-ended questions exploring roles and responsibilities. This might include extra chores as the parent is away.

Why Children Have These Responses

Children have these reactions often because they fear being left by the at-home parent, as their other parent has gone away. These are difficult concepts for young children, and although the at-home parent can reassure the child they are coming back to pick them up, the child is less inclined to believe or understand that.

They are acting out of self-preservation, and they are not trying to be difficult, however difficult the new behaviour is. At other times, they just don't have the words to express how they are feeling.

Educators can use some of the books in the Children's Resources to provide starting points for discussion.

Last modified: Tuesday, 14 November 2023, 12:51 PM