By Raising Children Network
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Dad and toddler cuddling
A stressful day at work might be followed by a new set of tasks and demands when you get home. When your partner’s looking for backup and your children want your attention, a big ‘head and heart’ shift is what you need.

How work affects your time at home

To thrive, children need warm, loving attention. This attention is built on the amount of time parents and children spend together, and the quality of that time. Quality time is when you’re physically and emotionally present with your child.

Work can get in the way of spending enough time – and enough quality time – with your child.

Obviously, long hours at work leave less time to spend with your child. Also, work can have a way of contaminating the time you spend with your children. If you’re stressed about work, or tired, worried and frustrated, you might be at home, but your mind can really still be at work.  

Children, even young children, notice when you’re not really paying attention to them. This is bound to happen sometimes. But when it happens a lot, children’s feelings about themselves can be affected

If you’re a parent in special circumstances – such as a single parent, or a parent of a child with disability – you might be facing other challenges that make the switch from work to home even more difficult. If this sounds like you, you might like to explore our Single parents & blended families or Children with Disability sections.

What children need

It’s usually ‘full-on’ in a household at the end of a work day, and your children might not give you time and space you’d like to switch from work to home mode. As soon as they see you, they want to tell you all the news of the day:

  • ‘Can you help me with my homework?’
  • ‘I have to take an orange hat to school tomorrow.’
  • ‘What are we having for dinner? I’m starving.’
  • ‘I scored the winning goal at soccer.’
  • ‘Jules said I’m not his friend any more.’

Younger children, including babies and toddlers who can’t yet tell you what they need, are often tired, grumpy or hungry by the time you’re all home at the end of the day. They want attention in the form of cuddles and comforting physical contact. 

And children can have bad days too, perhaps at day care or school. It helps if you know when this happens so you’re ready for the fall-out.

When you’re busy, stressed or stretched to the limit, you can easily slip into thinking of paying attention to your child as just another job or responsibility. Instead, it might help to think how wonderful it is to have a child to come home to and share the world with.

Tips for making the transition

Here are some ideas to help you really leave work behind and be present with your child:

  • Review the work day before you leave work and before you reunite with your child. This allows you to shift gradually to thinking about home and family. 
  • Consider that it might be worth staying a little longer at work to finish up a task instead of taking it home. Longer hours might not be the best option in the long term, though.
  • Try to arrange your work so you take on the most difficult and challenging tasks at the beginning of the day, instead of at the end.
  • Create some time between work and home to allow work to be ‘put to rest’ in your head.
  • Use the time between work and home to turn off and tune out. You can do this by listening to the radio or an audio book, reading or exercising (try walking or riding a bike home). 
  • Think about ways to make travel time more relaxing. For example, join a car pool, use public transport or walk. 
  • Once you get home, a ritual or routine can help you make the transition. This is a way of marking the physical, mental and emotional move from work to home, from worker to parent. It can be something as simple as changing out of your work clothes, or switching your thoughts to your child as you go from work to home.
  • Talk to your partner and older children about the challenges of making the transition. This is likely to be helpful, especially during stressful times at work. Help them see things from your perspective, try to see things from theirs, and have reasonable expectations. Expecting time to flop out on a chair and relax as soon as you get home probably isn’t realistic!
Time spent together is the building block of all relationships, and the more the better. When time is short, making the most of the time you do have is even more important.

Being realistic

It would be great if you could always leave your concerns behind and be the ‘perfect’ parent. It would also be great if children were always cheerful and concerned more about your wellbeing than their own. Unfortunately, life’s not usually like that.

There will be times when the balance between work and family demands is upset. For example, your child might be sick, you might be working night shifts, you might need to travel for work, or a project might need longer hours. Good strong family relationships can help you all get through trying times.

There’s no universal formula for work-family balance. You, your situation and your relationship with your child are unique. You need to take into account your energy level, personality and parenting style, as well as your child’s needs. With realistic expectations, you’re likely to find ways to create a good balance that works in the long term for you and for your child. 

More information about the work-family balance

Some work situations make it harder to give your child the kind of loving attention you want to give. These might include:

  • long work hours
  • no flexibility about shifts
  • constantly rotating shifts
  • lack of informal and formal recognition of family responsibilities (for example, no time off allowed for teacher interviews, or not allowing sick leave to be used to care for a sick child at home)
  • a work culture where people don’t talk about or acknowledge family life
  • a stressful work atmosphere because of tense or otherwise unhealthy relationships, lack of leadership, too much work or too few workers. 

Research shows that stress, heavy workloads and unpleasant social interactions at work can make you anxious and more stressed at the end of the day. This can interfere with your ability to pay attention to your child when you get home.

At the end of a stressful day at work, both mothers and fathers are likely to withdraw, to be distant and remote. The research also shows that fathers who have distressing social interactions at work might be more negative, less involved and more punitive towards their child.

Working long hours might mean that you get home after your children are in bed, or that you leave before they wake up. You might hardly see them during the week. If you bring work home, you might have less time to focus on your child.

Sometimes you might feel like telling stories about your work at home – unfortunately, even a terrific success at work is likely to be less interesting to your child than a game of hide-and-seek or a special book before bed. Most children want to focus on their day, not yours.

Other facts about switching from work to home

  • One study found that family strength is strongly linked to how much time family members spend together and how much appreciation they show each other.
  • Other research shows that a good family life can help prevent burnout at work. So every chance you have to build your relationship with your children benefits them, and can pay off for you too.
  • Last updated or reviewed 01-03-2011