When a parent travels

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 18, 2011 06:00 AM

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My husband is going away for a week. He is never away. I am worried about my 2.5 yr old son who wakes up every morning and from every nap sobbing for his dad. EVERY DAY. He repeats, "I want Daddy" over and over. It is annoying...and sad. I think it is getting worse. I usually just repeat it back, 'You miss Dad? You miss Dad. (Give a hug) He'll be home tonight."

I work part-time. The kids have a great babysitter, playgroups, etc. My son has no separation issues. His dad works 6 days a week but starts and ends early-ish and is very hands on. He is home for dinner, bath, bed most nights.

I am not sure how to deal with this 1) on a daily basis and 2) while he is gone for a week.

Thanks for any tips!
From: M, Brockton, MA


Dear M,

The daily "I want dad" could be a combination of parental preference , which is a typical stage kids go through as they try to understand what it means to be a boy or a girl, and a power play because you give him attention for his whining. Your best response is pretty much what you're doing. Make an empathetic statement -- "You wish dad were home, right now, don't you?" Then remind him in a concrete way that he can grasp when dad will be home. This is where it helps to have a regular routine: "Dad will be home soon after you watch your afternoon 'Thomas' video." Then move him along to the next activity: "Now it's time to get up from your nap and blah blah."

For the week of travel, a 2 1/2 is too young to understand much about the concept of traveling for work, but dad should make that point repeatedly anyway, before he goes -- "Daddy is going away for work." Oherwise a child (of almost any age) might engage in magical thinking: "I was bad. That's why daddy is gone."

Your son does not need more than two day's notice that dad is leaving. He should keep it simple: "I'm going away. It's for work. I'm going on an airplane. I'll be gone for five days. When I come home, we'll have lots of time to play." Your son might not get all that. Say it anyway.

When my son was almost exactly this age, I had to travel and, at someone's suggestion, I made a book for him: "Mama goes on a trip."

Page 1: "Mama is packing her suitcase. She is going far away on a trip to the USSR. She is going on a trip for work." Photo of mom packing.
Page 2: Big photo of an airplane.
Page 3. "While she is away, everything at home will be just like always.
Page 4: Picture of my husband and our son playing. "Dadd will take care of Eli and play with him and give him lots of hugs and kisses.
Page 5: Picture of the babysitter with Eli, and a litany of their activities.
Page 6: Picture of Eli with nana. "As a special treat, Nana will come and sleep at Eli's house...."
Page 7: "Pretty soon, mama will say goodbye to her work in the USSR. She'll get on another airplane and fly home."
Last page: "After she comes home from her trip. mama and Eli will play and play and be very happy to be together."

I just told my husband I was writing about this -- I pulled the book out of a drawer; there's a whole series of them -- and he got a nostalgic smile. "He wanted to read that book when he woke up and before bed. Over and over. I got sick of it. But it helped."

In addition, keep your son to as normal a routine as possible. When he talks about missing daddy, acknowledge and move on.

Help him to draw pictures or dictate stories for dad. Use Skpye or Facetime, but keep it upbeat and short. Most of all, don't take this personally. It's a stage, it'll pass and it is not a negative reflection on your attachment.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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2 comments so far...
  1. Love the book idea! I've made similar books to help my kids prepare for other types of anxiety-provoking situations in their lives, and it really helped. Putting in pictures is especially good---kids love to see pictures of themselves and hear their experiences discussed in narrative form.

    Posted by Robin November 20, 11 05:05 PM
  1. I think the most important thing is not making a mountain out of a molehill. He's not even going to remember this incredibly brief period in his life. I would also say that just because he cries for daddy in the morning, that does not mean he's going to freak out when daddy doesn't come home at night. Children this age have very little understanding of the passage of time. The only thing that could be a problem is the change in his routine at night if daddy puts him to sleep. He might fuss over this change, but that is something you just need to deal with at the moment. He's not going to be scarred for life because he gets upset that daddy is not home to tuck him into bed.

    I find it interesting that your son cries for his father every morning and when he wakes up from a nap. Does he do this at daycare also? How long has this been going on. Behavior like this usually wears off after a little while, so I agree with Barbara that he is getting something out of your response to him. The other thing to consider is that this feels annoying, but its really not all that bad. Is he really hysterically sobbing? Does he wake that way or is this when you wake him? Children are creatures of habit so sometimes they get used to doing something. A whimper when he wakes up is annoying, but you just have to ignore it. Hysterical sobbing, I think, means he's getting something out of your response..


    Posted by ash November 21, 11 10:54 AM
 
2 comments so far...
  1. Love the book idea! I've made similar books to help my kids prepare for other types of anxiety-provoking situations in their lives, and it really helped. Putting in pictures is especially good---kids love to see pictures of themselves and hear their experiences discussed in narrative form.

    Posted by Robin November 20, 11 05:05 PM
  1. I think the most important thing is not making a mountain out of a molehill. He's not even going to remember this incredibly brief period in his life. I would also say that just because he cries for daddy in the morning, that does not mean he's going to freak out when daddy doesn't come home at night. Children this age have very little understanding of the passage of time. The only thing that could be a problem is the change in his routine at night if daddy puts him to sleep. He might fuss over this change, but that is something you just need to deal with at the moment. He's not going to be scarred for life because he gets upset that daddy is not home to tuck him into bed.

    I find it interesting that your son cries for his father every morning and when he wakes up from a nap. Does he do this at daycare also? How long has this been going on. Behavior like this usually wears off after a little while, so I agree with Barbara that he is getting something out of your response to him. The other thing to consider is that this feels annoying, but its really not all that bad. Is he really hysterically sobbing? Does he wake that way or is this when you wake him? Children are creatures of habit so sometimes they get used to doing something. A whimper when he wakes up is annoying, but you just have to ignore it. Hysterical sobbing, I think, means he's getting something out of your response..


    Posted by ash November 21, 11 10:54 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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