Dr. Greene’s Answer:
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 temporary separations, it is difficult for both parent and child. My heart goes out to all three of you!
It is natural for your son to be clingy, confrontational, and sad. You can’t make his negative feelings about being separated from his father go away, and it is not in your son’s long-term emotional best interest to push these feelings down. When he 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 your son to express his feelings. You can, however, diminish the negative emotional effects of this separation on your son by working together as a family to build a close relationship between your son and his father.
It is great that your son and his father talk on the phone every night, but often, long-distance phone calls just remind a four-year-old that Daddy isn’t there. Four-year-olds need interaction! 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 son). The next time the two are together, Dad can show your son how to set up the board and play the game. After your son has successfully mastered the basics of the game, try setting up two boards in the same room, with Dad playing on one board and your son playing on the other. It is really no different than playing on the same board, but it will help your son make the next transition. When Dad has to go away the next time, have him take one board with him. When he calls, you can help your son set up his board and play a game with Dad 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 will get the hang of it and be able to play with Dad without your help. This kind of interaction helps your son feel like his father 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 son and his father, 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 son can draw pictures, you or your husband can write down some information about each shot (date, age of your son, etc.), and you can all add stickers or other decorations to make the albums special. When Dad has to leave, he can take one of the photo albums with him. During future phone calls he can turn to a page and ask your son to look at the same page. Your husband can use the picture to remind his son 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 son to know that he is looking at the same thing Daddy is looking at. This is a small, but very tangible way of staying in touch.
Videos are also powerful. Create a family video that shows your son with his father (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 son’s favorite toys, reading a bedtime story — the more ordinary, the better! You can play this video over and over for your son 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 son and his father. It is especially powerful if your son is allowed to answer the phone, talk to his father, and hang up the phone without Mom getting to talk to Dad at all. (The two of you can have your own good night ritual after your son is in bed.)
This time of separation is certainly a challenging one. It is much easier to relate to a four-year-old when you can wrestle him to the ground or hold him in your arms until he drifts off to sleep, than when you are forced to be two hours apart. This time is not going to be easy on any of you, but if you make your family relationship a high priority, you can successfully navigate through it. In the process, you will create powerful positive memories for your son and establish excellent patterns of relating that you can continue after you are all back together.