From the time that we begin to let ourselves believe that a positive pregnancy test could actually mean that we are going to be parents, or we receive that first darling photo from an adoption agency, we begin to fall in love with that incredible new little person. Conversely, that adorable (and sometimes, not so adorable) child begins to love and trust his or her parents even before birth. Whenever a parent and a young child have to be separated for an extended period, it is difficult for both parent and child.
Here are some tips (for the parent staying with the child) for making this period of separation a little easier:
You can’t make a child’s negative feelings about being separated from a parent go away, and it is not in their best interest to push these feelings down. If your child acts out, help him use positive ways to communicate his feelings. Coloring, playing with clay, or using action figures to tell his story are all great ways to get a child to express his feelings.
Try buying two copies of a game for two (Guess Who or Battleship works well for this, but select a game that is well suited to your child). The next time the parent who will be away is with the child, they can show them how to set up the board and play the game. After your child has successfully mastered the basics of the game, try setting up two boards in the same room, with the parent who will be away playing on one board and your son or daughter playing on the other. When Dad or Mom has to go away the next time, have him or her take one board along. When he or she calls, help your child set up his board and play a game with Dad or Mom over the phone. The first few times it is very helpful to have a speaker-phone so you can hear what is going on. Soon your son or daughter will get the hang of it and be able to play without your help. This kind of interaction helps your child feel like his parent is involved in his life even though they aren’t together.
Pictures are another great tool. Go through your family photos and select several pictures of your child and his Mom or Dad, and the three of you. Have two copies made of each picture. As a family project, put together two identical photo albums. You can each contribute to these unique family heirlooms — your child can draw pictures, you or your spouse can write down some information about each shot (date, age of your child, etc.), and you can all add stickers or other decorations to make the albums special. When Mom or Dad has to leave, he or she can take one of the photo albums along. During future phone calls, they can turn to a page and ask your child to look at the same page. Your spouse can use the picture to remind your child of the wonderful times they’ve had together. This will help him believe that you will all have more wonderful times together in the future. It will also be very comforting to your child to know that he is looking at the same thing Daddy or Mommy is looking at. This is a small, but very tangible way of staying in touch.
Videos can be powerful. Create a family video that shows your child with the parent that will be away (and be sure to get some shots of you, too). Try to get lots of close-ups. Take shots of an ordinary day — eating breakfast together, playing in the park or with one of your child’s favorite toys, reading a bedtime story — the more ordinary, the better! You can play this video over and over for your child as a reminder that things will be normal again.
Begin long-distance rituals. A two-minute goodnight call at exactly the same time each night can build a great deal of stability into the relationship between your child and his parent who’s away. It is especially powerful if your child is allowed to answer the phone, talk to his parent, and hang up the phone without Mom getting to talk to Dad at all (or vice versa).
Alan Greene MD FAAP
March 29, 1996