By Chantal Chen, occupational therapist, and Shining Sun, clinical psychologist with writer Sam Lu
As the world becomes more and more interconnected, travelling for work is increasingly becoming a common part of many jobs. While for some it can be an exciting perk, for many parents, it means extended absences from home and a disruption to one’s family time. Explaining this to children can be a source of stress and anxiety. But it doesn’t have to be. Today we’ll talk about some ways to make work trips easier on you and your child.
NOTE: All the points below are listed chronologically by age. Please adjust the following tips to the child’s actual developmental stage.
How Much Notice Should You Give?
Younger children (from toddlers to early childhood) do not have a firm concept of time. They might get anxious when they hear their parents will be away for even a short period of time. Therefore, it’s more effective to let them know a maximum of two to three days ahead of time about your travel plans, leaving them less time to worry.
Older kids (middle/late childhood to teenagers) are more independent and have a stronger grasp of time. Informing them four to five days ahead of time will allow them to make a plan and prepare themselves.
When explaining the situation to your child, give them details about your trip, such as departure time and date, your destination, and what you’ll be doing. For last minute trips, give your child a calm explanation as soon as possible.
How Should You Tell Young Children?
Work trips can be difficult for a child to fully comprehend because it involves abstract concepts, such as time and space. Therefore, it’s helpful to use visual aids to turn the concept into something they can see and interact with.
Work with your child to create a map and mark your destinations. This helps them understand where you are going.
Use a calendar to visually mark your departure and return dates and allow them to cross out one day every morning when they wake up. This provides your child with a way to tangibly understand how long you will be away for, and gives them a sense of predictability.
For younger children, you can make this a fun activity: get creative with them and track dates in a more physical way. For example, you could get them to move a picture of a train one block each day towards a station that is marked by your return date, or create a count-down board with them.
Dealing with Negative Reactions
Of course, you will probably encounter negative reactions from your child. Acknowledge, rather than diminish, your child’s feelings of anxiety or sadness. Avoid phrases such as “there is nothing to worry about” or “you’re a big boy/girl now and you just have to deal with it”. This may encourage your child to deny and invalidate their own feelings.
Preparing for Your Departure
During the days leading up to your trip, be sure to prepare regular check-ins with your children to give them something to look forward to while you’re travelling.
For younger children, you could set up a ‘treasure hunt’ where you hide something in the house and get them to look for it while you are away. You could also prepare daily surprises (surprise envelopes/boxes) for your child to open each day you’re away. The surprises could include notes wishing them a good day, an encouragement, or a small gift.
For older children, you could plan a fun project with them, different from homework or any school-related assignments. Tell them you can’t wait to see the product when you get back.
This helps to not only take their mind off your absence, but allows them to develop their independence. If your child will be home alone, of course, ensure they local emergency contacts they know how to get in touch with.
For children who are generally anxious over separations, leave them a physical object, such as your picture or a personal item for them to carry around or sleep with to comfort them.
On the Day of Your Departure
Stay calm and collected. Acting anxious, showing guilt, or apologizing can leave your child worried and uneasy. Make your goodbyes brief. Prolonging your departure doesn’t make it easier for your child. Give your child a kiss or hug, let them know you love them, reassure them, and leave. Keep positive and tell them something like, “I love you and I can’t wait to see you when I come back, but I know you’re going to have a great time!”
During Your Trip
While you are away, it’s important to make sure your child has a stable daily routine. Pass along detailed daily schedules, instructions, family traditions, or other necessary information to the child’s caretaker (e.g. the other parent, ayi, grandparents) to maintain consistency in the child’s day-to-day life and to help minimize any disruptions caused by the trip.
Thanks to modern technology, it’s easier than ever to keep in touch while you’re traveling. Check in regularly in the form of a phone call, video chat, or messages. If you’re planning on scheduled check-ins, make sure you can follow through (e.g. a phone call on Wednesday at 7:00 pm). Don’t commit if there is a strong likelihood you will let your child down!
For younger children, daily check-ins may be necessary. Provide your child reassurance through video chats and phone calls that allow them to hear and see you. Remote bonding activities such as playing online games together or watching a TV show at the same time can also be helpful. At a minimum, record daily videos of yourself to send to your child if the timezones or schedules can’t match up while you’re away to show that you’re thinking about your child.
Teenagers and older kids may not need such regular check-ins. Give them more space by checking in less frequently or with less intrusive methods like messaging and texting to allow them the freedom in responding.
You’re finally back at home after your work trip and you’re probably exhausted. Your child wants to tell you everything that has happened since you’ve been away and wants to hear all about your trip.
Give yourself some time with your child; spend at least 15-20 minutes for hugs and kisses and catching up. It’s important to spend time with them to let them know that they are loved and are important as well. Dig deep into your well of parenting strength to find the patience and energy to greet them with warmth and interest in their lives, even for just a brief period before you crash!
After you are unpacked and all settled back in, work towards resuming family routines as soon as possible. And last but not least, don’t forget to take care of yourself as well!