One of the biggest pain points parents are reporting during shelter-in-place is the lack of personal space and alone time. Whether you’re trying to work from home or just need to get 15 minutes to reset, it can feel next to impossible when you’re sharing space with the kids every minute of every day. Here are some approaches that can help, and are much more effective than whisper-hissing, “I AM ON A WORK CALL PLEASE BE QUIET” for the 500th time.
For kids old enough to read, post a schedule for the week with your set “office hours,” and be sure to build in time for fun and for quality time together, so your kiddo is reminded of what they can look forward to. If they can’t read or follow the schedule, having as much consistency in your schedule from day to day will help, so they’ll learn from experience that after you are on your computer for a certain amount of time you will join them for your daily family dance party, for instance.
Don’t want to schedule out your whole day? Simply post a sign outside your home office, kitchen, or wherever you need space that lets approaching kids know whether or not you’re available. Again, if your little one can’t read, a simple “stoplight” system with red, yellow, and green works too.
Claim some space
Establish a space that’s just for your own private time, whether it’s your temporary work-from-home office or just a place where you can read or take care of personal hygiene. Kids should set up their own private space, too, so when it’s quiet time or they just want to be alone, they know they can go there and not be bothered. Some kids might enjoy setting up their own “office” for drawing or doing school work. Often, knowing a certain space is off-limits for interruptions is easier for kids than remembering certain times of the day when you’re unavailable, especially if your kids are young.
Teach them need vs. want
Have a discussion with kids about some situations where they might want your attention but don’t actually need it, and what they can do instead of interrupting your private time. Set them up with some snacks, water, and activities for the day so they don’t have to come to you with all of those requests.
It may help to make a list of all the things your child can be proud to do all by themselves (that they don’t actually need you for), like putting away clean laundry, getting dressed, or making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You can also come up with a list together of things they can do when they’re “bored” or done with their school work or chores.
Establish some rules, like not opening the bedroom door when it’s closed. To help them understand why they should follow the rule, set it up as a reciprocal rule that applies to them as well. Practice knocking on their bedroom door and waiting for a response, for example, or approaching them when they’re busy playing and saying, “Is this a good time to ask you something, or do you need five minutes?”
Another way to remind kids of the rule is to set up a visual cue that signals that you’re working or having alone time. Carrie Sharpe, a communications consultant who homeschools five children while working from home, offered this strategy to The Muse for when she’s on a work call: “I hang a stop sign on my office door so the kids know not to barge in. They know that when the stop sign is hanging there, they need to be quiet.” Kids can even help make a stop sign or “Do Not Disturb” sign so they’ll feel like they’re part of establishing the rule.
Use positive reinforcement
Praise your child when they show they’re making an effort at giving you space, like when they come up with a solution to their own problem, when they knock on your door and wait patiently for a response, or when they stay quiet during quiet time.
Encourage them to ask for their own alone time or “office time,” too, and praise them for that too: “That’s so great that you realized you needed quiet time and you told me! Let me know when you are ready to play/talk again.” Then, of course, model how you respect their boundaries—and ask them afterwards how it felt to have their request for personal space respected.
Keep in mind that kids are still learning to develop empathy and self-awareness, so the concept of giving someone personal space isn’t easy for them. As clinical psychologist Stephanie Dowd told Child Mind Institute, “Boundaries are essentially about understanding and respecting our own needs, and being respectful and understanding of the needs of others.” To get there, they’ll need your support and coaching, and opportunities to practice respecting boundaries.
And lastly, when you’re not working or taking a break from the kids, be sure to put your phone away and show them that you’re happy to spend uninterrupted time with them! Having some breaks and alone time should help you regain the mental energy you need to actually enjoy the extra time that you get to spend with kids during quarantine.