My husband is off on another long trip. It’s been 6 months since he’s traveled for more than two weeks at a time, but the kids went right back into the same pattern the minute he left! Liam has become even more attached since Sean finished his last tour, and it’s really the first time that he understands the meaning of a “long trip”. The spontaneous tears are always explained by, “I just miss Daddy sometimes”, and his usual happy-go-lucky demeanor is decidedly less happy. Riley is old enough to look at a calendar with me and understand that a month is not as long as a year, but she is struggling in her own way: Nightmares, overtiredness, lots of tears, and a little (make that a lot) extra separation anxiety. These behaviors usually last for the first 5-7 days, and then we settle back into some form of “normal”. All to be expected when Sean is on the go for a while. We have our strategies to get through the long trips, and we end up just spending a lot of time as a family to make it through the hard days. I’ve recently met some other moms with husbands who travel regularly (although maybe for shorter periods of time), and one of my close friends has been traveling a lot for work lately (leaving her husband home with the kids). It occurred to me that it might be time to share a few strategies for helping kids cope when one parent travels frequently. While the long absences can be exhausting and lonely for the parent left behind, it’s the kids who really struggle to make sense of what’s happening. Below are a few tips to help you help your child cope with long separations:
1. Care packages: Preschoolers love to send and receive mail. So much so that Riley will accept almost anything as “hers” when the mail comes each day. The kids have spent the past few days drawing pictures and “writing letters” for Daddy, which I will send off to his hotel this week (we might even sneak in a few of his favorite snacks as well). Putting together a care package for the traveling parent helps empower children to put some thought into what might cheer up their mom or dad, and it also reminds them that mom/dad miss them too. It’s a fun project to work on for the first few days that shifts the focus from missing to be being missed.
2. Maps: When Sean was on tour, I put a world wall map and a U.S. wall map on the wall in the family room. We put a guitar sticker up every morning to mark where in the world he was that day. I also tried to gather some information on each city with a quick google search, and we learned about the weather, favorite foods, and a little history about each city. Knowing where the other parent is and being able to visualize it a little gives children a feeling of control. The hardest part of long separations is that they have no control over the situation. They want the parent to come home, but they can’t make it happen. Providing some information about what that parent is doing and eating while away takes away some of the mystery.
3. Write a book: Children need constant reminders that the traveling parent loves them and wants to be with them. Writing a story about the special bond between the child and that parent provides something tangible for the child to look at on his own or read throughout the day. It’s as easy as Microsoft Word and a simple upload. I went to www.bookemon.com and (with Riley’s input) wrote, “I Know My Daddy Loves Me…Even in Australia”. We uploaded pictures of her choosing, and some from Daddy’s travels, and ended up with a beautiful book about Riley and Sean. We still read it nightly when he travels, even if it’s only for two weeks. You can also keep it simple by making a book at home with crayons and paper or printing something out on your own. The important thing is to have something to remind them that mom or dad will be home as soon as possible.
4. Expect regression: It’s hard to help toddlers and preschoolers understand that a long trip isn’t forever. Expect changes in sleep, accidents, poor eating, increased temper tantrums, and excess tears. They will need a lot of extra love and attention during the separation. Now is the time to reach deep into your soul and find every bit of patience that you’ve ever had. They need it.
5. Create a routine: If you don’t already have a sleeping and eating schedule for your kids, now is the time to start one. Toddlers and preschoolers crave predictability because it helps them feel more in control of their lives. When they know what to expect, they don’t have to worry about what comes next. Try to make it easy on them by keeping them scheduled. If a long trip falls during a preschool vacation, stick to the same routine and throw in some extra activities to pass the time.
6. Countdown calendars: Although older preschoolers are starting to make sense of today, yesterday, and tomorrow, the concept of two weeks, one month, or one year is still hard to grasp. Circle the days that the parent will be gone on the calendar, and let your child make an “x” at the end of each day. It will help your child see that time is passing and he is one day closer to seeing his parent. Another fun strategy is to make a chain link out of construction paper to symbolize the amount of time the parent will be away and have your child tear off one piece of the chain each night before bed. It helps them to know that time is moving along.
7. Skype, Facetime, & iChat: The good news is that we now live in a time where we can see each other through a computer screen, no matter where we are! Try to schedule a period of time each day where the kids can see their parent for a few minutes. I find that it helps to do it around snack or mealtimes, when they are calm and sitting anyway. Don’t be surprised if they become angry or tearful when the chat is over, it’s always hard to say goodbye. I find that when the kids can’t see Sean at all, the days are longer. **Schedule in some time for you to have your own private face to face chat with your spouse too. You’re working hard…you need a little time “alone” with your spouse to feel connected too!
8. Adventures: We always talk about going to the zoo, and yet we never make it there. Try to find some time to take a few small adventures while your spouse is away. New places and information keep kids active and interested. They might also enjoy the special adventures as they wait for their parent to return. After very long trips, we also try to plan a couple of nights away as a family somewhere to reconnect. It’s hard for Sean to take a break from working, but if we take him away he really settles into relaxation mode quickly. If at all possible, plan a family getaway and let the regrouping begin!
9. Take care of you: With your spouse on the move, you are working overtime. Don’t let “mom (or dad) guilt” keep you from doing things for you too. Get a babysitter when you can. Have coffee with a friend. Get that pedicure or haircut that you keep putting off. Exercise. Go to the grocery store alone. Invite a friend for dinner after the kids are in bed. Do something, anything, to give yourself a break. You need it.
Some parents have hectic work schedules and travel often. It is just part of the job. It can be hard for kids to cope with the long periods of separation, but with a little extra love and attention (and a good schedule) they can survive just about anything. Just don’t forget to take care of you too!
How do you help your kids cope with a traveling parent?