Skip to content
The Struggle is Real! Working From Home With Young Children is Difficult

Over the past year I’ve been supporting parents in creating systems and frameworks to manage the challenges of working from home with children.  One of the most consistent challenges people share is their child cannot play independently or need constant attention. The reality is, kids often see the relationship with their parents as heavily engaging and interactive, so there is a lot truth to the idea that can’t do very much without an adult because they don’t usually have to.

As one might expect, this challenge is being highlighted during the pandemic because children don’t have skills for independent play and don’t understand why parents can’t engage with them in the same ways they usually do.  So what do we do about this so that we can cope through this period of time?

The good news, the solution not only addresses the challenges of working from home with children, it also helps foster some essential life skills that will give you more space to co-exist (and get work done!)

What Independent Play Isn’t…

I want to make it clear upfront.  Independent play does not mean you are going to alienate or neglect your child.  It does not mean you put them in another room and hope they learn to occupy themselves.  Independent play, as a skill, is something you intentionally develop by understanding that you are not going to be actively involved and responsible for facilitating your child’s play all the time.  Instead, you are going to get clear about what types of play you will and will not engage in and when.  Independent play can happen beside you, around you and in the same room as you… but not rely on you!  

Independent play means children are playing without adult direction, not without adult supervision.

4 Steps to Support Developing  Independent Play

Step 1: Reflection

What do you think your child’s understanding of your current relationship is?

Asking yourself this question will help you realize what boundaries currently exist around your relationship.  A lot of  kids are used to the time they spend with their parents being engaging and heavily interactive.  

Therefore they think: my parent plays with me when we are together. 

They can’t make the connection that you are home working and they are home BUT the relationship has changed. At this point, without any intentional conversations or resetting the boundaries, even if you were to say – I need to work – there is no concrete understanding of what is work and how has that changed the fact that you can’t play with them. For them it’s like week of Saturdays. 

Step 2: Reset the Expectations and Check Your Parent Guilt at the Door

In order to change their understanding of your relationship ‘during working time’ you need to use language to support a change in a way that your child understands.

What you are doing in resetting the boundaries is actually beneficial!  The ability for a child to play independently is an essential life skill and you are giving them tools for long term success. Children do not need to be occupied all day, in fact they do better when they aren’t.  I know the pandemic adds a layer of stress about this, but this is not about alienating them, it’s about fostering skills in a conscientious  and intentional way.  The how’s and why’s of the child psychology of this piece is a blog unto itself.  More on this another day (follow my Instagram page to keep in the loop)!  For now, know that what you are doing is actually a really good thing for you and for them.

Step 3: Foster Skills for Independent Play


A lot this will feel like you’re saying things that seem obvious, but they aren’t to kids.  Children are both seemingly aware and completely oblivious simultaneously.  And truthfully some of our best intended conversations aren’t being understood the way we think they are.  ‘I’m working’ is a great example.  What does that actually mean to your child and how has this changed boundaries around your relationship.  Unless you explicitly tell them, they don’t know what you mean by ‘I’m working, don’t bother me.’

To Change This, We Need to Use Intentional Language to Set the Expectations

  • Talk about how things are different right now even though you are both home. You have a job that means you need to do xyz at your desk. During those times you are working and can’t play.  Talk about how this is hard for both of you. It’s hard to be home and work and not play all day with them.  Use this to define what work looks like => where you work, what kinds of things you’re doing.  This way when you say “I’m working” it will be clear that means, not play time.  Validate all the feelings and reset the boundaries so that your child understands, it isn’t that you DON’T want play with them it’s that you CAN’T.

Note: Chunk this convo out into a couple different little chats, it’s a lot of information and this is a very big change for some homes.

For CAN’T to be Valid, there must be CAN!

  • Our kids want to spend time with us when we are around.  If we don’t set aside time where we are connecting with them, they will continue to ask for connection.  To establish new boundaries, you need to clearly communicate when you are going to play and when you are not available. For this to work you have to follow through with whatever you say you will.  If you say, I’ll play with you after my meeting, you need to come after the meeting and say… I finished my meeting and I can play with you until [my next meeting].  This reinforces that you do come and play when you say you will. If you aren’t clear about this piece they will keep asking.  No need to provide times for younger children because they can’t understand them, instead communicate clear starting and clear transitions to ending.  

Example: After we finish doing xyz, it will be time for me to go back to working and you to playing with abc.  We’ll play again …. or we’ll have lunch together…  Every time you spend time together, communicate that is what you are doing (the state the obvious thing).  I’m not working anymore, my work day is over, we can read a book together.  I’m not working right now and wanted to spend some time playing with you.

Step 4: Set the Stage for Success

Brainstorm a list of ideas of things your child enjoys and don’t require an adult.  You might need to rethink how you’ve been playing with your child and find different paths for shared play that foster a relationship versus a need for adult direction. Use the list you create as a guide for offering activities to do independently, no more then 1-2 at a time.  

Some things to think about: Within your list are there some activities your child can do sitting near you. ie) read books quietly, colour quietly, etc.  Again, we are clearly communicating:  I have to work at my computer, but you can read quietly beside me.  I can’t talk to you because I have to focus, but you are welcome to sit here or play quietly on the floor beside me.

Note: This is for older kids, but there some ideas here that would work for younger kids too: Tips for Managing Virtual School

KEY for Success: 

This will take some practice because you are developing new habits (behaviour) and this doesn’t happen in an instant.  Every time you come after a period of independent play connect with gratitude – Thanks so much for giving me space to work!  Wow, you just made so many cool things, you must feel so proud!…  Can I have a big hug?  I really appreciate you having some quiet time while I had that important work meeting.

Last Thoughts:

In the beginning it will feel a little bit like potty training.  Lots of accidents and patience will be required as you redirect your child back to their independent play.  If you commit to intentional connection time and they build trust that you will spend time with them when you say you will, they will develop skills to play independently and you will still maintain a strong bond and relationship.

Like most conversations with children, keep it simple and straightforward.  Don’t get caught in explaining in the moment when they come to you while you’re working.  Simply say, I am working right now and you are doing XYZ, I will do ABC with you after I’m done.

If you have some questions or need some language to support the changes you are trying to put in place, jump on a quick call with me here to troubleshoot.

Take a deep breath!  This life we are living isn’t easy!  Be sure to join the RRC Parent Community on Facebook to connect with other parents.