Traveling Away from Children

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

Dear Cristina,

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

Steps of Positive Discipline

I have a two hour Positive Discipline Refresher workshop currently available through my online service, Below are some reminders and a few examples of using the Steps of Positive Discipline.

I messages and empathy are foundation pieces of positive discipline. They are meant to be used as you enter into the exchange. I messages are for sharing (and calming) your own emotions. They are used when laying blame to be sure you are blaming behavior and situation not child. Empathy validates the childs emotions and understands why they feel that way. This tends to calm the child and put them in a better place to listen. Positive Intent is identifying the good reason behind even the bad behavior. It is not meant to excuse behavior away but rather to calm you, shift your approach to the child and lessen their defensiveness, so they can take ownership of the behavior. While I messages and empathy are used as needed, positive intent is good to at least think everytime.

Choices are meant to change behaviors. They work because they share power. When a child makes a choice they are buying into the process and closer to the behavior. Remember, two positive choices that meet your goal. Be flexible and creative here. Choices before consequences unless it’s aggression. Natural consequences are what just might happen. They are given as a warning and the child is aloud to choose behavior. Positive logical consequences are if the good behavior, then the good outcome. Negative logical consequences are if the bad behavior, then the bad outcome. Logical consequences are best when related in time, intensity and content.

Let’s say your child is chasing and yelling at a playmate, trying to grab a toy the friend has.

  • I message – “I’m upset, people are grabbing.” OR  “I’m frustrated, this is too loud.”
  • Empathy – “I know you are frustrated, it is hard to wait.” OR “Wow, you are upset. You really want that.”
  • Positive Intent – “You are excited about that toy.”
  • Choices – “Do you want to play with this or that while you wait?” OR “Do you want to ask for or turn, or do you want me to help?”
  • Natural Consequences – “If you keep chasing, he might not want to play.”
  • Logical positive – “If you can wait, I will be sure you have the next turn.”
  • Logical negative – “If you keep grabbing, you may not have a turn.” OR “If you keep yelling, you’ll have to play in a separate room.”

>Forced Apologies

>Dear Dr. Hackney,

When my child does something that upsets or hurts another child, I want him to apologize. He may apologize but often is resistant, and it ends up in a big argument between us. How can we instill a sense of empathy for others and encourage apologies?

Anna, mother of two
Ages three and four years old

Dear Anna,

What you are describing is a forced apology. If you are a parent who suggests to your child that they apologize and then they do, that is not forced. Forced apologies happen in one of two ways. Either the child is angry and resists having to apologize or the child is embarrassed and hesitant to apologize. In both cases, the child’s own negative emotions often get in the way of developing a sense of empathy.

If your child is angry and not feeling sorry about what happened and you force the apology, the result is predictable. Your angry child likely will storm over to the other, bark “SORRY!” and leave abruptly. Rather than teaching your child to feel empathy, this situation seems to provoke feelings in the opposite direction. Your child may actually resent the other child more for his role in this interaction. Your child also learns that saying sorry, even if he doesn’t mean it, is enough to fix a wrongdoing.

If your child is embarrassed by the idea of having to apologize but is forced to do so, the result differs but is just as predictable. With a push, your child may slowly approach the other child and then quietly say “sorry,” while fighting back tears. Empathy requires the child to focus on the thoughts and feeling of another. When a child is embarrassed, he is thinking mostly of himself which inhibits the development of empathy.

Rather than force an apology from an angry or embarrassed child, you will have more success building a sense of empathy and teaching the language of sincere apologies through modeling. In the case of anger, take your child with you and say something like, “I am so sorry he did that. I would like to make it better.” Here, the parent is speaking for himself. The parent is sorry, the child is not.

In the case of embarrassment, take your child with you and say something like, “He is so sorry. He would like to make it better.” The child actually is sorry, just reluctant to address it. Your child will have the benefit of hearing a sincere apology and optimally will be able to focus on the feelings of the other child rather than his own.

On the opposite end of this continuum, some children readily apologize just to be finished with the conflict. I have heard my own seven year-old saying, “Sorry, sorry, please don’t tell mom, sorry!” while reaching to take a toy out of her sister’s hand. Here, a way to shape true apologies is to teach children to feel it, say it and fix it. This requires teaching children to focus on their feelings of remorse and recognizing when they should apologize. It often requires modeling the language of sincere apologies. This idea adds the idea of then teaching children to take some action or make some amends.

Rene Hackney, PhD.
Parenting Playgroups, Inc.