Helping Children (and everyone!) Cope when a Parent is Away

A few minutes ago, I received my first eFamily News from Bright Horizons . The topic is how to help children cope while a parent is away.  The timing, just days before Veteran’s Day, is perfect given how many families have loved ones in the military stationed overseas.  I remember when my Dad was in Desert Storm back in 1991 during my senior year and graduation from Boston College.  Not an easy time.  Granted I was older, but there are takeaways in this article for families with children of all ages.

And to be honest, I wish I had read this two months ago before my husband switched jobs back in September.  Our lifestyle changed dramatically – my husband’s commute changing from 6 miles to 225 miles, his schedule changing from a “see you at dinner” departure in the morning to one where he departed before dinner Sunday evening and returned home late Thursday evening.  We were fortunate that our situation was only temporary and he is now working back here in Beantown.  But the relevance for us and our children was the same:  whenever parents are away, the separation hurts.

The main tenets of Bright Horizons’ article below are as follows:

  • stay connected before the separation,
  • stay connected while gone,
  • establish rituals when you return,
  • and finally, be aware that planning, humor and perspective are keys to success.

I wish you smooth transitions and lots of patience during your times of separation!


Helping Children and Families When a Parent is Away

Whenever parents are away from home for more than a day or two, the separation may hurt. Children with family members deployed or awaiting possible deployment in the military are in a very different situation and need support and reassurance that their loved ones will be safe and return home soon. All children benefit from our planned activities and rituals that celebrate the relationship and help them to stay connected to their loved ones. 

Staying Connected Before the Separation:

While you are away, your child (with some help if needed from another family member) can:

  • Create “While you are away” journals and portfolios. These could be “What I would tell you or draw for you today if you were here” collages, collections of objects found today, and photographs.
  • Create a gift jar filled with special items to give you as a homecoming present.
  • Mark a calendar. This will help connect both of you (and becomes a math activity). Circling the return date, if known, creates a sense of journey with an ending.
  • Communicate via e-mails, phone calls, and notes.
  • Plant a flower, tree, or garden.
  • Keep track of where you are on a map. Your child can also track where they are (home, school, at Grandma’s, etc.)
  • Put together a photo or video diary of life at home to share with you when you return.
  • Store “treasures” in a keepsake box to show you when you get back.
  • Do chores around the home to help out.
  • Read the same book as you and share their thoughts with you by e-mail, phone, or notes.
  • Use special stationery to write notes to you.
  • Track the weather where you are.
  • Send you mementos for you to carry.
  • Hang a bird feeder and keep track of the different birds that come while you are gone.

Staying Connected While Gone

  • Send or collect little inexpensive gifts.
  • Collect coins, photographs of places or people, postcards, flags, natural materials such as stones, pinecones, etc…or anything that has a sense of place for your child.
  • Look at your child’s picture and/or a special memento from your child every night before you go to sleep.
  • Tell your child a story (when and if you can communicate) over the phone.

When you are Back Together

  • Create rituals around the activities you chose to do while separated: the collections, the diaries, the gift jar and so on, and make each activity special. Spread them out over a few days.
  • Allow for some special time alone with each family member to welcome you back.
  • Have some family meals where everyone has a role in preparation (and clean up).

Final Note

Easing the pain of separation is possible with some planning and effort. But also remember that we can go overboard, and sometimes the best laid plans can fall apart or aren’t always possible to carry out. We may need to relax to avoid “are we having fun yet?” attempts that become so emotion-laden they can create stress and have the opposite effect of that which is intended. Humor and perspective are keys to success.

Resources for You

  • Thrive – Children’s Hospital Boston’s pediatric health blog post about helping kids cope with the stress of having a parent away at war. Click here to read.
  • Bright Horizons’ Growing Reader’s Library book recommendation – Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq for children in Grades 3-6. Click here to read description.
  • Bright Horizons’ Growing Reader’s Library book recommendation – Yesterday I Had the Blues for preschool children. Click here to read description.

Bright Horizons® Education & Training

Bright Horizons Family Solutions® is the world’s leading provider of employer-sponsored child care, early education and work/life solutions. Bright Horizons® provides children the opportunity to achieve their very best and empowers them to become confident, successful lifelong learners. A developmentally appropriate curriculum coupled with state-of-the-art facilities complement children’s inquisitive nature by giving them the tools to embark on the exciting path of growth and discovery.

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