Preparing Children Before You Leave

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My neighbor Heather witnessed the goodbye with my youngest daughter Minerva, age 3. Mimi was on her way to dance class with her favorite little tutu-twirling friend. I loaded her in the car, placed both hands on her chubby cheeks, and said, “Mimi, I love you very much. Be a good girl and I’ll see you when I’m home from my trip.” She asked, “You’re going on your trip now, mama?” And then she started to cry.

We always talk about the trip. I tell them where and when I’m going, when I’ll be home, and some of the things I’ll be doing while I’m gone. Usually, when I travel without them, it is for work: site inspections, meetings, dinners with grownups, etc. But I also try to tell them a little about the fun things; I think it’s important that they know I do fun things, even without them. And we talk about the fun things they will do while I’m away: the friends they’ll see, the special outings, and the rules that will be more relaxed when mom’s gone.

We try to keep the conversations casual. I share bits of information in the few weeks before departure and then a couple days before I go, we all sit down together in a more formal setting and explain what will happen and who they can talk to if there is a problem. We role-play a few scenarios so they feel prepared.

Every child is different, but it’s important they are not surprised by a parent’s departure. If they don’t know you’re leaving, it’s more difficult to understand that you’re coming home. We don’t count down the days, especially for the younger children as it makes them more anxious. Instead, they know it’s coming, but don’t think too much about it until it’s time to say goodbye.

The day before I leave, we do something special — anything fun or meaningful will do. In the pre-trip mania, I never have time for it. I have work that needs to be finished, a suitcase that needs to be packed, homework that needs review, etc. But there is that mostly irrational idea that keeps me focused on quality time with my kids instead of my to-do list — what if I never see them again?

There, I said it. It happens every trip and it’s torture. I know I’m not alone.

Trip after trip, I return. And so do they. So, even if they don’t need that “last memory” for an extended period, it still helps get us through the travel days.

The most difficult part is always saying goodbye and as Minerva’s eyes filled with tears while her cheeks were still between my palms, I smiled and said, “Oh Mimi. It’s okay. You have fun at dance class and later you can have a sip of Heather’s Diet Coke, okay?” She likes dance class and she likes swigs of Diet Coke and that is easier to think about. Always try to send them off with something they are excited about. As Mimi wrapped her arms around me and gave me a kiss, we were smiling.

The little ballerinas drove away in my friend’s car and Heather said, “Wow. That went way better than I expected. My youngest (now 22) still gets upset when I leave.” And that’s when she turned to see me wipe away tears and nod with my face in ugly-cry position. Saying goodbye is hard, even when you’re well prepared, but it’s been important in our family that I maintain composure. If I lose it in front of the kids, we all fall apart.

Since having parents gone is emotionally taxing on kids (and their caregiver) it’s important to create the most positive environment. This will make it easier on everyone and will increase your odds of being able to travel without them again.

Reminders:

  • Talk about your trip and why it’s important with your kids.
  • Find caregivers who you trust and who your children enjoy.
  • Make sure your caregivers are prepared.
  • Be direct and positive with your children. No surprises.
  • Make time for questions and answer them honestly.
  • Talk about different scenarios and resolutions.
  • Have a fun family activity or time with each child before departure.
  • Reassure children that you will be back and share how to contact you if needed.
  • Bend a few of your rules (examples: buy some grocery items that feel special, give them an extra day off of piano practice, allow them some extra TV time).
  • Try to schedule something the child is looking forward to directly after the goodbye.
  • Express your love, but keep your composure to help them feel more emotionally stable.

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