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When a Parent's Away: Learning through Distance

When a Parent

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Updated on Jun 10, 2008

When young children live in a home where a parent travels on a regular basis, unique challenges apply to the family. In situations where a parent is gone for a few days at a time, or away on a trip or military duty, it can be difficult for a child to understand the concept of when Mom or Dad will be back.

Sandy Hastings is a mother of six and holds a degree in School Counseling. She points out that structure in the home can help with the apprehension a child may feel while a parent is gone. “Most children seem to thrive best when there is a sense of routine in the home," she says. "Children can experience anxiety if they are uncertain about what is happening and what is expected. Oftentimes this anxiety will manifest itself through misbehavior.”

To help decrease such anxiety, use the following activities to provide a wealth of learning experiences based around a parent's travels, and make the concept of time easier to understand. Discussions and activities can be done with the child by the traveling parent(s), a parent who will be at home, a nanny or a babysitter. These suggestions may be used for children whose parents travel on a regular basis, or are gone for extended periods of time, such as airline personnel, business travelers, social service workers, military personnel, and overseas contractors.

Consider using these activities at home to boost your child’s knowledge of geography and understanding of time, as well help take the sting out of the absence:

Post a large map in the child’s bedroom, an office room, or even on a closet door:

  1. Use push pins or stickers to mark where the parent is traveling that day or that week. Consider using a laminated map and a wipe-off marker to circle the locations
  2. Discuss with your child the locations traveled to, using the names of states as well as directional concepts of north, south, east, and west. Use the largest applicable region to aid comprehension in very young children (start with states rather than cities). Even preschoolers can begin learning the location and names of various states!
  3. Be sure to use a map most applicable to the primary area of travel. If the primary area of travel is within the United States, use a map large enough to see and read major cities within each state. If the parent’s travel area is worldwide, use a large map that includes all the countries and continents.
  4. As your child gets older, include the time concepts of past and future. “Yesterday, Mommy went to Chicago. Tomorrow she will be going to Kansas City.” Use a calendar to show your child the dates you will be gone, and when you expect to be back. The simple activity of marking off the days can make it easier for your child to understand that you will be returning, and when.

Other uses for the maps and the calendar:

  • Marking dates and locations when going on a trip
  • Marking dates and locations when visiting family or friends, or when others are coming to visit you
  • Noting the locations of newsworthy events
  • Finding and marking the locations on the map that relate to a school assignment
  • Marking the dates on the calendar that relate to a school assignment: when it is due, steps that need to be taken toward its completion, etc.
  • Using the information to compile a journal or scrapbook. What fun for the family to look and see all the places marked on a map and a calendar within the span of a week, a month, or a year!

Hastings adds that making the most of this experience can be a help and comfort for everyone in the family during a regular or extended absence. “Giving the child a point of reference for the parent that is away can be a stabilizing factor for the caregiver and the child."

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