Coping with Family Separation

How parents and kids can best handle staying close while being apart

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Whether the separation is short or long-term, voluntary or forced by events beyond a family’s control, the implications for all concerned are huge. Yet there are steps families can take to cope with separations.

My bags were packed and at the door. As opposed to the mountains of luggage that usually accompany our family trips, this time I was taking a single suitcase and a slim briefcase, which should have made things easier, only it didn’t. After being the one to “woman” the fort solo and see my husband off on countless trips since our marriage, this time it was my turn to fly, his to stay behind. And there I was at the last moment, still fiddling around with all the lists I’d drawn up earlier. Emergency phone numbers, menus for the meals I wouldn’t be there to prepare, … etc. The lists were fine but I was having a bad attack of separation anxiety!

Then came the moment as I hugged my kids one more time and it was over. I’d left my husband, my four babies (one’s taller than I am!) and a big chunk of my heart behind for the first time since they were born. We were being re-baptized into the growing community of people experiencing separation.

Family separations are hard on all concerned, but are particularly difficult for children who are too young to understand adult reasons for events that drastically affect them, their loved ones, and the physical distance between them.

Whether the separation is short or long-term, voluntary or forced by events beyond a family’s control, the implications for all concerned are huge. Yet there are a number of steps families can take to cope (and sometimes even thrive) during a separation.

Ways to Help Childen Cope

  1. Communicate: Tell your child ahead of time that you’ll be going away, say why, and give her time to get used to the idea. Use a calm, matter-of-fact tone and assure her that you’ll be back soon. It is very important to reassure your children that you love them. Kids can think that you’re leaving because of something they did.

  2. Maps: Show where you are going, possibly including pictures.

  3. Teach time concepts: The difficulty that little ones face in placing a “real” value on time compounds the hardship of a separation. How much time is a day, a week, a month or a year when all a child wants is for Mommy or Daddy to come home? Understanding how long you’ll be gone can help your child cope. Here’s ways to “practice” before you leave.

    Paper chains: Since I knew I was going to be gone for a week, we made two sets of paper chains, with seven links in each. Ten days before I left we started removing a link a day on one of the chains. When the first chain had been consumed, I explained that this was how long it would take till I came back, I gave my younger kids the second chain just before leaving and asked their brother to help them remove a link a day.

    Calendars: Crossing out days on a calendar works to the same effect.

    Clocks: If your absence is only for hours, you can make a cardboard clock and move the hands every hour so that your child understands what an hour is. Then when the moment of parting comes, show her on the real clock where the hand needs to go before you can come home.

    Relate your absence to a specific event that took place a while back, comparing how long ago that happened to how long you’ll be gone.

  4. Treasure hunts: Write letters or notes, possibly including a surprise with each, and hide them in your house. Each letter can have a clue on where to find the next day’s letter, and state how many days are left till you return. This will give your child something fun to look forward to, and works great for a short absence where there won’t be time for mail.

  5. Record stories: You can read several bedtime stories on a tape and have an older child, spouse, or assigned caregiver turn on the bedtime stories for your child.

  6. If at all possible, call every day that you’re gone, possibly reading the bedtime story on the phone. Patricia Cairo, mother of a three-year-old says, “The first time I went on a business trip I thought it would be easier if I didn’t call too often, I figured I’d be disrupting [my son’s] routine. That made it worse. He kept asking when I’d come back. The second time I called all the time, and he coped much better.” 

  7. Emotional partings: Each family needs to decide how to handle partings. Although some advocate that accompanying the departing parent to the airport may be helpful to children, I chose to say goodbye at home. Instead, I planned a special activity on my departure date and made plans for my family to meet me on arrival.

  8. Leave notes and lists for the primary caregiver, including emergency phone numbers. A directory or house map on where to find medication and important documents can also be helpful.

  9. As with all absences, make sure you have the basics in force for life insurance, a will or trust and a guardian for your children so that you can have peace of mind while you go about the business of living.

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