I travel overseas a lot with work. It is very difficult with two toddlers at home. I don’t like leaving them, they don’t like me leaving them and my wife doesn’t like being left.
I have written a whole blog on the contradictory emotions that leaving the family for work reasons provokes in me (I’m travelling abroad for work without my children – is it OK for me to be feeling this happy?) so I won’t go into that here.
Instead this blog deals with a technique that I have developed to make the separation more bearable, particularly for our 3yo daughter who is more conscious, vocal and assertive with her displeasure at being left behind.
Mrs Secret Father and I have, rightly or wrongly, always been really open and honest with our kids about what we are doing. We rarely get nights out together these days, but when we do go out we explain where we are going, how long for and when we will be back.
Initially my daughter would scream and refuse to go to bed on such nights, but after three or four such occasions, became more accepting that Mummy and Daddy might want to go out for a few hours.
The first time I went away for a sustained period with work (about 10 days) I explained to my daughter where I was going and how long I was going away for. This seemed to work initially and I was able to leave the house with my suitcase, relatively unscathed.
However with her only frame of reference being a few previous separations of a couple of hours, it wasn’t long before the questions came thick and fast for Mrs Secret Father to deal with and then eventually this resulted in a mega meltdown caused by frustration, overwhelming emotion and sadness that Daddy could so easily desert her.
We noticed that my being away also set her back in developmental milestones too – temporarily resetting progress that had been made on walking unaided, and more recently reverting to wetting herself when she had succeeded at potty training many months previously.
So a few weeks ago, before a trip to the United States, I decided this time to sit down with my daughter and create a chart to help communicate what was happening. I figured that “time” and “separation” are such abstract concepts to children that it might be easier to deal with if I made them tangible and visible.
So I sat down with her on the morning of my departure and got her to choose the colours we were going to use. I marked out the days I was going to be away and in each day we drew what was going to happen and who she was going to be with. She even helped with a few squiggles of her own.
I then gave her a sheet of stickers and told her to sit down with mummy at the end of each day and put a sticker on the chart to indicate that day was over. The idea was that mummy and her could sit and discuss the day, look forward to (and discuss) the next day, and see it all within the framework of me being away.
The first time we tried it was actually when Mrs Secret Father was away with work for a week and it worked a treat. It made the whole thing more predictable for my daughter gave her a notion of time passing and helped her visualise when her mummy would be home. It also helped to reaffirm routine, a key concept and safety blanket for toddlers.
And it also helped this time on my recent trip to the United States. The sight of me standing at the front door with my suitcase, a symbol and catalyst for so many meltdowns in the past, was no longer a threatening sight. Although my daughter asked many times where I was during the trip, Mrs Secret Father was able to sit her down in front of the chart and talk her through the situation.
Mrs Secret Father sent me a picture of the chart from the first night I was away. If you look closely at the sticker my daughter chose for the first Monday, you will see it is a spaceman. Apparently my daughter chose this to represent me flying to America. I have always fancied being a spaceman, but unfortunately I didn’t get THAT kind of an upgrade on the flight home.
I would be really pleased to hear about your techniques and advice for dealing with separation anxiety in toddlers.
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