March 14: When Your Child Says, "Leave me alone!"
Last week I presented a webinar for parents entitled, “Building Resilience and Managing Big Emotions”. One of the topics that arose during the Q&A was what parents should do when a child is upset or dysregulated and asks to be left alone. Some of the confusion parents experience around this topic seems to be related to social media. Specifically, some information in the social media parenting space emphasizes that parents should never leave children alone when they are upset because children will feel abandoned or will internalize the message that their emotions are bad, unwelcome, or too much for the adults to handle. In the moment when a child is running away to a private space or saying, “Go away, leave me alone,” parents understandably feel confused about how they should proceed.
We know that a significant social-emotional goal during childhood and adolescence is to support children in building their self-awareness. Another central social-emotional goal is for children to learn to self-advocate. One way to support progress towards these goals is to honor your child’s request when they self-advocate for needing space provided your child will be physically safe when they are by themselves. A great way to begin is to initiate a conversation when your child is calm and willing to engage in some mutual problem solving about managing times when they have big emotions.
Begin by asking your child what happens when they are having big feelings and ask to be left alone. Approach the topic with curiosity. See if your child can articulate what their body and their emotions feel like when they are dysregulated and what is helpful about being in a separate space. Talk with your child about the fact that you want to respect their choice to be alone. Be clear that their big feelings do not scare you and that you are available if/when they need you. For example, you might say:
For preschoolers: “Sounds like your brain and your body want space when you have big feelings. You can tell me, ‘I need space,’ so that I know that is what you need.”
For school-aged children: “Thanks for explaining this to me. I hear you saying that when you’re really upset what feels best is to cuddle your stuffie and be by yourself. I’ll check in with you from time to time to see if you’re ready to talk or get a hug.”
For tweens and teens: “I want to respect your need for space and privacy when you’re upset. I also want to be sure that you’re safe. Even when you’re upset, please try to use words to let me know that you need to be by yourself. I’ll check in with you from time to time. I don’t want to bug you, but I do want to remind you that I’m available to talk, to give you a hug, or just to listen if that is what you need.”
Work together to make a plan about a space where your child can be alone and safe. Consider creating a calm down corner (or a calm down box) that includes items such as comforting stuffies, blankets and/or a sleeping bag, fidget toys or items to squish and squeeze, books or coloring pages, and perhaps a pillow your child can scream into or punch if they so desire. As part of making the plan, let your child know that you want to respect their desire to be alone and that your presence is available if/when they are ready for a hug, back rub, or conversation. Tell your child that you will be checking in on them periodically to see if they still need some space. Essentially, the message you want to convey is, “I’m nearby. I’m not going to impose my presence on you, but if you need me, I’m right here.” When you check in, you could calmly say:
“I’m right here if you need me.”
“I’ll be in the kitchen. Let me know if you’d like a hug.”
“I hear that you want to be alone. I’m just checking in to let you know I love you.”
If talking seems to fan the flames of your child’s distress, consider a nonverbal check-in where you show your child a thumbs up/thumbs down so that they can return the gesture to let you know if it’s ok for you to come into their space or if they need more time alone.
This topic is nuanced, and I can’t cover every individual circumstance in a general email. To be clear, we certainly don’t want children to feel abandoned when they are dysregulated. And…many people, children and adults alike, do best with time and personal space as a way to re-group and regulate. When your child asks to be alone, by periodically checking in with them in a kind and tender way, parents can balance preserving connection and respecting a child’s desire to be by themselves.