When one parent travels frequently, it can be stressful for the whole family. While the kids are likely to regress, experience increased stress, and feel left behind, the other parent is left to support the kids during the absences (including all of that regression and stress) while coping with his/her own stress.
I can say from experience that it does get easier over time, but it makes for a very difficult transition during the first few long trips.
You might find that your usually happy-go-lucky child suddenly appears withdrawn or anxious. Perhaps you notice nail biting, excessive crying, or changes in appetite.
You are likely to see changes in your child’s sleep cycle: Difficulty falling asleep, frequent night wakings, and nightmares are all common in children under stress.
Support and empathy are the most important factors when it comes to coping with long separations.
The parent will need support. Whether it comes from friends, family, religious groups, or parent groups makes no difference. When parents are under stress, kids are under stress too. Having a few people who can help out in a pinch or just listen when you need to vent makes a big difference in decreasing your stress.
The kids will need empathy. A lot of it. Yes, behaviors will arise and things might not go according to plan. It’s very difficult to cope with long separations from a primary care giver. Kids need to hear that their parents understand and that it’s ok to make mistakes while they process this new situation and learn how to cope.
There are a few other things you can do as well…
Send the traveling parent off with reminders of home: Although the kids and the parent left behind bear a lot of the stress, it’s also difficult for the parent who has to leave. Send that parent off with a favorite family story to read over Skype, a toy that wants to take an adventure, and a picture collage to put in the hotel room.
Schedule Skype/phone sessions: Kids need consistency. If they know they can expect to Skype with their parent at the same time every day, it decreases some of the anxiety about what’s happening. I have my husband Skype in at dinnertime when he travels. He grabs a snack and “eats” with us. He also reads the kids a story and plays cars with my son through the computer. They know that he will be there for dinner most nights, and they look forward to it all day. On the occasions when he can’t Skype at that time I give plenty of warning and plan another time.
Consider a private family blog: Set up a private blog that you and you husband can access. You can each update it at the end of the day so that the kids wake to a post from mommy or daddy, and the other parent wakes up to a post from the kids. It’s a great way to share pictures of what’s happening during the day and tell each other the story of the day.
Recordable stories and books: For younger children, recordable stories can be a lifesaver. My kids have these books from four out of five grandparents, and they love them. They love studying the pictures while listening to Mimi or Papa reading their favorite stories. For older kids, consider having the traveling parent record some chapter books to “read together” at night. Yes, I know that there are many Apps that allow for recording stories…but nothing beats flipping through the pages of a book!
Videos from afar: Have the traveling parent record some videos for your children. For toddlers and infants, singing a favorite bedtime song is always a hit. For older children and tweens/teens, video diaries about what’s happening and what they might do together after the trip will help your child feel connected.
Care packages: Who doesn’t love a surprise care package in the mail? If you plan it in advance, it’s fun to send your spouse a few treats in the mail. The kids can send drawings, bake cookies, and include other little favorite treats. We like to send drawings and gummy bears, and my husband always loves it.
Countdown calendars: Depending on the ages of your children, use either a large wall calendar to cross of the days or make a paper chain countdown and pull one piece from the chain each day. It helps children feel in control when they can see time moving along.
Create a routine: The best way to help keep stress and anxiety to a minimum is to follow a very specific schedule. Eat, play, and sleep at the same time. Use large wall calendars to help the kids see what comes next (picture cues work well for young children). When you take the guesswork out of the daily schedule, it reduces stress for your children.
How do you help your kids cope with long separations?