Dear Dr. Rene,
I am traveling alone at the early part of December and again in January. The first trip is to visit my sister who is ill and following treatment. The second trip is work related. I will be gone a week for each trip and have only been away from the girls once before. They are now three-and-a-half and almost five years old. The first trip out of town for work was two years ago, and it was difficult all around. How and when should I tell my girls? Should I tell them together? How much do I tell them? What are things I could do to make this time go faster or easier for them? I too am having a hard time getting ready and making these trips. I am feeling anxious and overwhelmed at the separation and find it a difficult task. Then, I think about all the other moms of the world who travel regularly and wonder in amazement, how do they do that? Any insight and suggestions would be appreciated!
Cristina, mother of two
I know this can be difficult. The idea is to prepare them without overpreparing them. It is plenty to tell them just a few days before. Have a simple few sentences ready about where and why you are going, when you are leaving, how long you’ll be gone and most importantly who will be taking care of them. Be ready for the upsets and questions. If they are upset, give lots of empathy and talk them through. Answer all of their questions honest but small. Try to shift the follow-up conversation a bit to where they will be and who will be caring for them during the time. If there is anything fun planned for them during the time, highlight that as well. I tend to tell my children things together as they help each other. If your’s are particularly dramatic or tend to work each other up, it is fine to speak with each separately.
You might help them by teaching them to use a simple calendar to count down the days you will be gone. You can practice this next week with the Thanksgiving holiday. If you are all traveling or having houseguests for a few days or even just all home from work for a few days, draw a square for each day. Draw a picture in each square to represent something from the day and have them cross off each day when they go to sleep at night. For example, Grandma is visiting Wednesday through Saturday. The calendar would be four squares with a picture of grandma arriving in the first square, turkey in the second, a museum trip in the third and grandma leaving in the last. Each night during the visit, have them cross off a square. Make one of these for each of your trips.
You might also make them each a small photo album with a few pictures of you with each of them and a few of them with other relatives. It is a nice thing for children to have pictures readily available when a parent is away. You might also introduce the family to email and Skype. It would likely help if you can send notes or pictures each day and spend a bit of time on the phone or skyping with them while you are gone. If you were going to be gone longer than a week, you might also send postcards or small gifts in the mail. A little more effort, you could record them a few of their favorite or even some new books on tape.
As much as you feel overwhelmed and anxious, try to put on your brave and confident face when you are talking with them about this. If they are upset themselves and see your tears and lip quivering, it may add to the sense of panic. In general, I am all about sharing emotions openly with children, and I think you can let them know you are sad, but you want to be sure you are able to send comforting messages and the sense that this is a solid plan rather than adding your own sense of doubt.
In genreal it is good for children to have normalcy during times of change, so it’s good to keep them on a relatively similar schedule as to when you are home. Plan for them to attend school regularly. That said, around their normal activity, I would try to build in one special thing for them to do late in the week. Maybe their caregiver could take them to a movie or out for a dessert on Friday. You might also encourage the caregiver to help the girls plan a welcome home for you such as a special dinner or outing. This gives them things to look forward to and distracts them a bit.
I hope this helps.
Sincerely, Dr. Rene