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Helping Children Cope with Short Separations from Their Parent

Helping Children Cope with Short Separations from Their Parent

Are you going to be traveling without your children for a few weeks? Or is your spouse/partner the one traveling? These relatively short trips are usually pretty manageable, but they can still be stressful on your family. Here, we talk about some fun and play-based ways to make short separations more enjoyable.

Someone in the Military, family separations are expected. It’s not “if” but “when and how long”? But, many families deal with separations, just not military families. And more than ever, moms are traveling just as much as dads. So, this issue really affects everyone.

Today, I am talking about SHORT separations and I will make up that definition to be 30 days or less. Some of these suggestions will also apply if you are dealing with a longer separation, but that is certainly a different situation and will require additional coping skills.

Some ideas on how to deal with a short separation


  • Prior to the trip, it is important to watch your language regarding the trip.

You may be headed off to keynote a huge presentation and be super-excited OR you might be off on a boring work assignment to a place that you are dreading, but your language about the trip is important.

“Daddy’s work is making him go away for three weeks” is not as helpful as “Daddy gets to learn/teach/help some other people for a few weeks.”

  • Talk about the traveling persons destination and use it as a learning opportunity.

You can look at it on a map, watch YouTube videos, talk about what time zone it will be, the food, activities and culture. (Even if you are going to a place that feels boring and unexciting, you can still learn as much as possible about the place). For military families where the person is going somewhere confidential, you can fantasize about places that they might get to see.

  • If possible, plan for a special activity with the parent before they leave.

This doesn’t have to be expensive. It might be a relaxing day at the pool. Or watching your favorite movie together. Dinner at your favorite restaurant or just chocolate milkshakes for desert.

  • Parents might leave some special messages or treats.

One thing that I see recommended by military spouses often is for the parent who is leaving to record video messages to play for the children. They sometimes leave behind a couple of those books that you can record yourself reading. Or sometimes just make videos of them reading the child’s favorite stories so that they are available anytime!

During the Separation

  • Find a way to count down (or up) the days.

During our last separation, we made an old school paper chain with links for each of the days that Daddy would be gone. Every day, we cut the chain, wrote a note about what fun we had that day and then taped them (stretched out flat) around the doorway.

Other families use marble jars. In this case, you fill a jar with marbles, stones, shells, etc and then transfer them to another jar each day.

Others have a jar of Kisses (chocolate candy) and just eat one per day.

But, especially for little kids, it is really important for them to see visually how much time has passed and is left.

  • Create a schedule for phone calls and Facetime.

This may be difficult depending on time zones and work schedules, but at least try to come up with a plan about when and how often you are going to connect.

Although it seems ideal, having daily Facetime calls may not be as necessary as you think. But, knowing when to expect a call is very helpful.

We love to use the free app, Marco Polo, to send asynchronous messages. It’s easier than storing them on your phone and even little kids can figure out how to do this themselves. This works especially well if you are separated by multiple time zones and your days/nights don’t match up with your partner. You can have the child record a message every night at bedtime and have your partner respond so that the child has a message when they wake up in the morning.

This also works great because it takes off the pressure of maintaining a long telephone conversation and lets everyone feel like they are “in the loop.” This is also a great way for the traveling person to show off the sights of where they are or for children to report on boo-boo’s, new toys, or just make silly faces and share I Love You’s.

  • Again, be mindful of your language and your attitude.

You may really miss your partner. Your children may really miss their parent. It is best to acknowledge that feeling out loud by saying “You really miss Mommy right now.” Normalize and validate that feeling and share your own (I miss her too).

It’s totally fine to talk about what you are missing in that moment.

He always knows how to fix the TV. Or, I wish she could see my game this weekend.

Parents are often quick to brush off these feelings and rush to the fix. We want to jump right in and say “He will be back soon” or “She knows that you are going to do awesome in your game.”

Those things are necessary, but FIRST…acknowledge and validate the feeling. THEN, talk about how to cope your way through it by asking the child how they want to handle it.

“Hmm, what do you think we should do?” You will be surprised how often they have an idea (you can video it. Or, I will color a picture about it.) And then, they’re off and back to their normal routine. If your child is struggling with ideas, this is a good time of offer a few choices.

If your child is really stuck in the negative and is fighting all coping skills, then this is a time for extra connection. Validate the feeling, connect physically with a hug or by being nearby and allow the feeling to exist for a bit by just breathing and sitting with it. By mindful of your breathing during this time and really model good coping skills (breathing, rocking, humming).

When your child appears ready, try again with the coping skills by offering an activity like listening to music, drawing, cooking, or playing outside.

  • Remember that this is difficult for the traveling person as well.

Have empathy for your partner. When you are at home doing the “dirty work” of maintaining a household and raising children, it can be easy to blame your partner. But, traveling can be stressful on them too.

They might be lonely and isolated, which can lead to depression. They might be worried about how you are doing and fearful that something is going to go wrong and feel helpless. Or, they might just feel guilty that this opportunity is hurting their family, even if they are really excited about it.

Whenever possible, remember to respond with empathy for each other and support each other through the week.

  • Have a plan and stick to your routines!

Continue with your normal routine as much as possible. Don’t just sit around and mope or put everything on hold. GO OUT. Do activities, even if that means that your partner misses out. Tell them to go out and do activities too.

  • Get support!

Just because there is not a “date night” doesn’t mean that you can’t get out. Get a babysitter or swap with a friend and have a girls night out or do an activity that is relaxing for you all alone.

  • Be prepared for a crisis

Military spouses have a Murphy’s Law for Deployment’s that if something is going to go wrong, it will surely happen while they are gone.

For me this has included a) my dog getting bitten by a rattlesnake b) car problems of every variety 3) a leaking water heater 4) sick kids and 5) loads of other little problems that I have since blocked out.

While you can not plan for every problem, you should have a list of people that you can call for backup if you are feeling overwhelmed and can’t get access to your partner for support right away. This includes contact info for the mechanic, a plumber, at least two babysitters, the local animal hospital, the closest urgent care, and a local work contact for your spouse.

When things go wrong and they often do…stay calm. Prioritize the problems and do your best. You might not handle it exactly the way your partner would, but that’s okay!

  • Practice self-compassion

The laundry might pile up more than normal. You might have pizza a few extra days (or fast food or cereal). You might watch a little more TV or be a little less adventurous on your weekends. Be gentle with yourself and know that you do not have to morph into a Superhero.

It is OKAY to function at 90% some of these days. If you are really struggling, go back and find more support from friends, family or even a mental health professional!

When They Return

  • Decide in advance about the pick- up and reunion

Is the whole family going to the airport? Or is it better to leave the children at school and connect as a couple first?

Is your partner traveling a long distance and going to need to rest when they arrive or is it an easier trip back and they will be ready to jump right in?

It might have only been a few days (up to a month), but it is important to discuss and manage the expectations of each person in the family about the plan.

  • Plan for a catch-up ritual

This might be a repeat of the goodbye ritual – chocolate milkshakes while we exchange stories of the week. This one might involve having the person’s favorite home-cooked meal or dessert ready. Again, it doesn’t have to be big or expensive, but it’s nice to have a connection ritual for the return.

  • Know the expectations about souvenirs

As a child, when my Dad traveled, he always came back with treats and goodies. It was one of my favorite parts of his military travels around the world to see what he could bring back. If this is part of your traditions, great. But it may not be. With children, if you do it once, they might expect it every time, so it’s important to manage expectations about gifts BEFORE the person returns.

  • Connect with your partner

Yes, your children want to spend time with their parent. And you can be sure that they get that time together. But, also within the first few days of the return, plan for a date night. Again, it might just be dinner, or a movie, or a walk through the park. But, you need to have a chance to re-connect as adults as well.

Each trip, it is important to review what went well (that Marco Polo app was great huh?) and what didn’t (man, I really needed to prep for dinner much better) because there will be ANOTHER separation in the future. Each one is slightly different, but you can learn from experience what helps you manage these times for yourself and for your children.

Separations can sometimes be great ways for everyone to learn how strong they can be. Children might become more helpful and you gain confidence in your own skills and abilities. They can also be exhausting and stressful and feel really hard. Not every separation is the same, so take each one as its own learning experience.

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