Janet consults with a military mom of a 3-year old daughter who is trying to decide whether to accept a lengthy deployment. She wants to understand the effects it may have on her daughter and the steps she can take to maintain their strong relationship. Her husband is also active-duty and travels regularly, but he is about to be deployed for several months, so she’s hoping Janet has some suggestions how to manage this extended separation as well as the transition when he comes back into their daughter’s life.
Transcript of “Helping Parent-Child Relationships Thrive During Long Separations and Transitions (Live Consultation)”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. How’s everybody doing? I’m thinking of all of you at this difficult time.
Today, I’m doing something brand new for the podcast. I’m going to be consulting with the parent of a three-year-old. This parent emailed me with concerns about an impending separation, potentially a long one, and certain life transitions that her family is facing. Separating from our children, even for short periods, can be heart wrenching, whether it’s for their first days at preschool, or a weekend trip with our partner, or a friend or, as in the case with this family, an extensive period of work-related travel. I thought this might be a good opportunity to cover some of the common emotions that children express, and our own feelings when faced with separation.
Janet: Hi there.
Parent: Hi Janet.
Janet: How are you doing?
Parent: Well, I think these are crazy times for all of us.
What I usually like to do is… I mean, this is your time and your call, first of all, to talk about what you think is important, but I recommend starting with what feels like the biggest concern right now. And if we start from there then we can kind of work our way through other concerns and see how I can help, hopefully.
Parent: Sure. So one of the things that I’ve learned from your work and have internalized is the importance of our relationships with our children in terms of providing them with stability as the foundation for the rest of their growth. And so my concern is, as I mentioned in my email that both my husband and I are active duty military officers, and we each have a deployment on the horizon. So I’m just looking for your advice on how to best prepare her for those situations ahead of time. And then also reintegration.
The first thing that we’ll have is my husband, who, he already travels quite a bit for work as it is. So she’s used to him coming and going. But she is almost three now and she’s become more curious about when he leaves, where he is, what he’s doing. And she’ll say things like… that she is frustrated or she’s disappointed that he’s not there when she wakes up.
But we’re typically able to move on from those things pretty quickly because they’re a matter of course. But my husband is deploying this Summer for three months and this will be the longest period of time that he’s been away from her since she was six weeks old and he deployed then. How do I prepare her for that? When do I start preparing her for that?
And then is there any way that we can actually maintain or grow their relationship while he’s gone? And then any tips that you have for their re-integration. So that’s kind of the first thing that’s coming up.
Janet: When is he leaving?
Parent: We’re expecting July.
Janet: Okay. So I would wait until three weeks to a month before, unless there’s talk about it from you or friends or other members of your family. If there is, I would definitely bring it out into the open. You know, children are very sensitive and aware. They have radar for what’s going on, especially with their parents. It’s better to put it out there for her, so it’s not this mystery, which is more disconcerting than the reality for children.
Like you said, the relationship is so important and that we have a relationship that’s steeped in trust, which means that we’re honest with you. We don’t try to whitewash things and pretend everything’s fine and you shouldn’t have any feelings about it. We put it out there honestly with what this is going to look like. So we don’t have to tell her what she’s going to feel or what anyone’s going to feel, but the more concrete things that will affect her life, the fact that he’ll be leaving for an extended time.
One thing that I would recommend is what we used to use in the olden days: a real calendar, a big wall calendar, so she can see the days. Something visual for her to get some sense of what that passage of time is really like, and have some autonomy in it, maybe choosing the type of calendar she likes and then being the one to make checks or put in things for the different days — when you’re going to FaceTime. Or it could be about everything in her life.
So yeah, I would say, “Dad usually goes for shorter trips. This is going to be a longer trip and it may be hard to have him so far away for such a long time.” And I would even say, “It’s going to be hard for me because I’m going to miss him.” Just very open, direct talk about this.
How is she with FaceTime? Does she like it? Because some children don’t like those things so much. It’s tough for them to be patient about it.
Parent: So because we are military, we live away from most of our immediate family and so she does spend a good amount of time Face-Timing with grandparents and extended family, but she’s a toddler, so she only is going to be attentive for a certain period of time. And so when I’m away, which is much more rare than my husband, I just like to watch her. I don’t have an expectation that she and I are going to have a conversation or that she’s going to sit still. I’ll just say to whoever’s holding the phone, “Just point it in her general direction and she’ll come back around and tell me something or show me something as she goes. ” Is much for me as it is for her when I’m away.
Janet: Probably even more for us than for them. I love the way that you’re handling that. That sounds perfect, that you’re not having expectation that she’s going to be able to sit and find that very engaging. Young children don’t tend to do that. In the old days, again, we had the telephone. If we were away, we would want to hear our child’s voice. But for a child, that was just not very satisfying, to have somebody that’s there but not there.
I wanted to ask you how she brings up things like, “I’m frustrated,” or “I miss daddy.” Or whatever. How does that come about? Because one thing we want to do is be careful not to read too much into her mentions of daddy and take it to a deeper place than it might be. So I’m just curious how that comes up when she says, “I’m frustrated.”
Parent: Part of our morning routine that she goes around the house and says a very sprightly good morning to everyone. She wakes up and her dad isn’t there, she’ll say, “Where’s daddy?” And I’ll say, “Oh, he’s in Florida.” And she’ll say, “Oh, I’m upset.” Or, ” I’m disappointed.” And remember, like I said, we pretty quickly move on from those things. Like I’ll just say, “Oh, you’re upset he’s not here. You’re feeling, you’re feeling disappointed.” And then we move on.
Janet: Does she show that she’s upset or does she just say the words?
Parent: I mean it’s really more verbal. She does not linger on it. She will continue on about her way. We’ve never seen a big emotional response or a tantrum and I know that sometimes those feelings can come out in other ways.
Janet: Right. That comes out in other ways and that’s where the feelings actually come. So her saying those things… I just find it interesting because sometimes we’re the ones that suggest those words. We might say, “Is that upsetting for you?” Or, “Are you feeling frustrated?” And then she’s, in a sense, repeating back what the parent has suggested about feelings.
Parent: I mean that is entirely possible. I am definitely guilty. Well, in a positive way, I’ve always tried to articulate her feelings in line with your guidance from the time that she was an infant and she would express something. I would say, “Oh, it seems like you are… (insert the emotion that I think she’s feeling). So we have always done that and then it’s entirely possible that at some earlier time I said, “Oh, I bet you’re disappointed your dad’s not here.” And so she may well be regurgitating that.
Janet: Yeah. So don’t feel guilty about it. This is just information to know for ourselves — that maybe she’s not really that upset. Maybe she’s just kind of weighing in.
It doesn’t sound like you’re doing this, but what can happen is a child will say, “Where’s daddy.” And the parent a little bit in their emotions lurches forward to, uh-oh she’s upset about daddy, instead of just staying behind our child in that sense, and just reflecting back what we know for sure, which is, “Oh, you’re thinking about daddy right now, or where he is. Let me see. I think he might be here and this is what he might be doing right now because it’s lunchtime where daddy is so he may be having lunch now.”
Children are very curious and they just want to know the information. When children are used to things like daddy’s not here, they do adapt to those ideas and they aren’t stressed about them every day. Especially when we’ve put it out there so honestly, as you are doing and will do. So there’s really nothing to fear.
Parent: That’s incredibly reassuring.
Janet: Good. Well, it’s the truth, I believe.
And I had an idea that it would be nice to do the old fashioned thing of letters. Do you ever do that?
Parent: Oh yeah.
Janet: I think that’s just so much-
Parent: Sorry, I don’t. My daughter sends letters to our extended family or pictures. I haven’t written a letter to my husband in probably 10 years.
Janet: It’s just much more tangible for a child to have that thing they can hold in their hand. And of course there’s other great aspects to this like learning about letters and writing and not that you’re going to be ‘teaching her’ in overt way, but just the fact that you would sit down together and maybe you have that on your calendar that, “Here’s the day that we write a letter.” Something that you do together and then asking her like, “Should we take a picture or is there a picture of something that you did this week that you want to share?” And you could even bring something. “Here’s a bit of sand from the beach we went to.” Or, I don’t know… “Here’s a leaf that I found.” You could really have fun with that.
So giving her that sense of participation and ownership in what’s going on and that autonomy of being able to decide things. It’s a fun, educational and emotionally rewarding experience to have all those elements come together. And then daddy sends letters back and you get to read those and imagine what he’s doing and it’s just a richer way than a FaceTime to feel connected and to feel like you’re sharing your life with somebody.
Parent: I used to send care packages, and part of the reason I don’t do it anymore, it’s because Amazon delivers everywhere so he can really get whatever he needs where he’s going. But perhaps that’s something that my daughter and I can do where we pick out things that we think… I could ask her, “What do you think the daddy would like to eat?” Or, “What do you think that daddy would like to read?” And we can pick some of those things out together and put it in a little box and send with her pictures and her letters.
Janet: That’s a brilliant idea.
Janet: So what else?
Parent: So what about as he prepares to come home? I imagine that preparing her for that will be much the same as when he’s getting ready to leave, we’ll maybe have the calendar going and we can do a countdown. Maybe pick a special outfit and do things like that to get her excited about his return. But I also think that she grows so much every day. She might be a slightly different child by the time that he comes home. So any suggestions for how we can use the transition and re-integrating him into the routine that she and I have established and even helping him become acquainted with the little girl who’s maybe a little bit more grown in different than he remembers?
Janet: Yeah. So I would be careful not to put any big expectation… Now I’m thinking of her end of things and how she’s going to feel… When you said, “Pick out the dress.” That sounds really, really sweet on one hand. But on the other hand, I wonder if it’s making a little bit of a pressure situation for something that might be anticlimactic at that point in the way that they actually meet again. For children, it can take a little while to get comfortable when they haven’t seen somebody for a while. So we don’t want to rush that. We want to give her the time and not put all this expectation.
So I think I would address that with this honest, open, concrete way of speaking with her about it. Also, inviting her participation again, “Where would you like to be when he comes?” “What would you like to wear?” Maybe. Without putting any charge on it, if you can.
You can say, “I’m really excited for daddy.” But I wouldn’t assume that she’s going to be excited. Hopefully he doesn’t assume that either, because it’s a lot of things when you haven’t seen someone for a long time and you’re that little and your emotions are all out on your chest. Your whole body’s feeling your emotions. It can be embarrassing. It can make you feel shy. It can be scary. It can be uncomfortable in a lot of ways. So I would be open to it being whatever it is.
Parent: Yeah, that’s a really great point. The only time he’s deployed since we’ve had our daughter was when she was very, very little. I mean, she was still an infant. So in the past it’s been like the prom for me, right? Getting ready and being excited. And so that’s a good perspective to have that that might not be how she feels. I think both of us are probably going to have to actively work toward anticipating that and being accepting of that.
Janet: I think that’s great. And you know how children sometimes cry when people sing Happy Birthday to them on their birthday, or they run away? All that buildup, excitement and then they feel on the spot… And, I don’t know, I can relate to it as an introverted person myself, I can relate to the awkwardness of it and the whole range of emotion.
So the best thing you could do, and I’m sure you will do, is to approach this in a way that is very accepting of however she feels about it and not taking it personally and not taking it as any sign that she doesn’t love her dad or isn’t excited to see her dad. Excitement is one of the emotions, I’m sure, but there are a lot of others as well. And those might be the ones that come forth first.
You use the word “anticipation” and that for children is very uncomfortable in a lot of ways. Anticipation… Like have you ever had the experience where you said, “Oh, this afternoon we’re going to have these friends over, you’re going to see grandma.” Or something, and then she can’t take a nap?
Janet: Yeah. So these things that we can kind of compartmentalize as like: I’m really excited about this. But I can still go on with my life, for children it takes over their whole body.
So for you and her dad, I would be looking forward. And I would go into this with confidence knowing that, yes, she loves her dad and there’s nothing that he can do to change that at this point. She loves him. She may not feel as at ease with him when she hasn’t seen him for a while, but she loves him. Knowing that, we can just be open to whatever this sweet girl does and how she takes it. But not, “Come here and give me a big hug.” I would be like, “Oh, I’m so happy to see you.” And, have your arms open for a hug if she wants to, but then accept whatever it is.
Parent: Yeah, those are really great reminders. I can’t say that I would have… I can’t say it would have occurred to me to throttle back. You see the movies, you expect a big open arm hug and things like that, but you’re right, that might not be a realistic expectation. So I’m glad that you mentioned that.
Janet: I think for an older child it might be more of a realistic expectation. But for somebody that’s so in the moment — they’re very self centered at that age. They’re supposed to be. All this development is happening and they need to be self centered and have their world kind of be around them.
I think those movies are more about older kids. But yeah, for you two to have your expectations realistic is going to help. So that you’re not let down and you’re not discouraged, and that her dad doesn’t feel less confident about proceeding with her.
And then, I would just take it slow with him not pushing the physicality, and knowing that it might take a little time to get back into being so demonstrative and everything.
What I’ve learned through all the work with Magda Gerber is that, those caregiving times are the golden times for connecting. And caregiving times with a child her age is the meals. Just being there, not having distractions, not having a cell phone. I would have him start putting that all away for these periods of time throughout the day, when he’s available to her, that is. If he’s working, or you’re working, you can’t do that if you need to make business phone calls. But as much as possible, prioritizing those times so that, you’re using those naturally intimate connecting times to build the trust back.
Parent: I love that. And I think like most children, our daughter really thrived off of routine and knowing what is going to happen. I mean, as you mentioned, she asks 1,000,001 question a day and wants to know where everyone is and what they’re doing and why. And so especially with her having those set routines… We do eat dinner together as a family every night, we read two books, we do the bath, we pick out clothes for the next day. I mean these are things that she knows are going to happen and she’s excited about them and it certainly makes me feel bonded with her to begin every day in that special way and then also end every night by putting her to bed in that way.
Janet: That’s great. And then when her dad is home, does he do any of those things with her?
Parent: I mentioned in my email, I think this may change as she gets older and they have more shared interests and they spend more time together. I think right now I am definitely the preferred parent and I perform most of those caregiving rituals. He does, but it’s not on a set basis. The expectation is that I’ll give her her bath and I’ll do her bedtime routine. And so the time that they spend together is impromptu. Right? So playing a game together on the floor or taking the dog for a walk and things like that, less caregiving and more play focused.
Janet: That routine is wonderful. You’re absolutely right. It empowers her. It helps her feel on top of her world — more confident — and children thrive in those situations. So absolutely.
But when you say preferred… Ideally, that doesn’t mean that you see it as a need, but as a choice that she’s making in that moment. Taking the dog for a walk and playing together is great too. But for him to have the opportunity to do some of those even more bonding experiences would be helpful for their developing bond and for building more trust with him too.
And the way that would look is I would let her know in advance, not in a warning way, but just, “Oh by the way, dad is going to be the one to give you your bath tonight.” And then she says, “No, I want mommy.” And you would say, “Ah yeah, I know you want me to do it. We usually do it. We’re the ones that do that together. But daddy wants a turn and we’re going to give him a turn to do that.” Then allowing for the protest. And him, if he can, meeting that situation with confidence. Even if it’s rocky, allowing that to be and not be intimidated by it.
Because it can be that she just wants it her way and in this case it’s really okay for her to not get her first choice. Almost especially if she cries, actually, it will open up their relationship to much more trust and a deeper connection.
When you can share that somebody’s not your first choice and they’re willing to hear that and they still stick with you… That’s such a beautiful moment to have with somebody as a child. They feel like they can share so many feelings with you as they grow. They can share that they didn’t like what you did, it embarrassed them. They can share that they’re mad at you for being away so long and not being there when there was Daddy’s Day at school or something.
They can be kind of pushing you away, but you stay there. And that that is the way children share that I missed you and you weren’t there and it’s uncomfortable getting to know you again. That’s exactly how they share it — through yelling at you or being upset that they wanted mommy and they got daddy.
So it takes us going into this really high place in ourselves to be able to do that as a dad. Even as the preferred parent, it’s hard to trust that that’s okay. But the other parent really needs us to do that and not come in if there’s crying and go, “Okay, I’ll do it. I’ll do it.” Undermining that other parent. So it takes both of you being heroes. Heroes that see the bigger picture.
Children are always in the moment. “This is what I want right now.” As adults, as their parents, we get to be the ones that see the bigger picture. We see beyond that she just wants ice cream right now, but we know that’s not healthy for her.
So being that parent in those situations will help him to get back in sync with her, believe it or not, even though it’s going to feel messy and hard in those moments maybe.
Parent: That’s great advice.
And then the other thing that I want to talk about, as we mentioned, my husband’s deployment is the one coming up most quickly, but next Spring I’m also supposed to deploy for six months. This certainly would be the longest period of time with she and has spent a part. And the beauty of this particular assignment is that it is stateside and there’s potential that I might actually be able to bring her with me, so long as I can make sure that I have childcare, like a live-in nanny or a grandparent who is able to be there. I need to be responsive to work and I essentially needed to be available at all time.
So it sounds like a dream come true, but I wanted to get your thoughts because I am also concerned about the disruption of moving her to a new location. Again, in the absence of her father because he would not be able to come with us, introducing her to a new caregiver and then moving her home in six months.
Janet: Right. I think those adaptations are well worth her being able to be with her primary caregiver, which is you. So you’re the primary attachment figure and it’s going to be harder for her to be away from you than her dad right now.
Parent: Okay. That was what I thought initially. That was what I felt in my gut. My husband and I are very grateful for every opportunity the military has given us, including this one. But we’ve also, since we had her, maintained that we will take every assignment and every opportunity one by one and determine what is in the best interest of her. And I am at this point eligible to separate from the military if I wanted to. So this is just something that we’ve been weighing on — whether or not to continue my career of military service even though it will cause perhaps disruption and discomfort to her because military service is not a choice that she made.
Janet: Right. Well, you’re very unselfish in the way you’re thinking about this, considering her in this way. But yes, for a child there’ll be some stress involved in it, but not nearly the amount that being away from you would be. Not that she couldn’t handle that either, but weighing it, yeah, it will be much easier for her. She’ll be much more comfortable if she could still be with you.
Parent: Yeah. So I think that either I will bring her with me or I will step away from my military career for the time being and just focus on her and focus on our family and not take that next assignment or that deployment. Because I… Again, this sometimes it was about me as a parent and less about her as a child, or at least equally about me. I can’t imagine spending that length of time away from her.
Janet: Right. And she’s still very young. So if she was seven or eight it might be easier because, again, children can compartmentalize things in their mind: My mother does still love me and I can’t be with her now, but I’ll be with her. It’s a little bit easier as they get older. It’s never easy, but she’s still at a very early time and development, and if you can make this work to not be away from her, I absolutely would. I would prioritize that.
And then I would address it the same way we were talking about her dad leaving and these other things that you’ll be very concrete about it. “This is what we’re doing and this is who’s going to be there. This is what our day’s going to look like.” And some people do make a book of all the things that she’s going to get to do so she can enjoy reading that story with you.
And now she knows that this and that is going to happen. And so she comes into it with this confidence of knowing and then she gets to see: Yes. Oh, there’s what that ends up feeling like and that. So it’s again, a very confidence building experience.
So yeah, I would do that and not say, “This is going to be great and you’re really going to like this new caregiver.” And all those things that we want to do because we really want it to be okay for them. Most parents, we just want them to be fine and to be okay. But they’ve got a right to be however they are about it. Just like with her dad returning, they’ve got a right to be themselves. And that’s what we want anyway. We want to meet her as herself, not some person that she thinks she has to pretend to be. So yeah, you can do that.
Parent: Okay. I love that.
Janet: And is there anything else?
Parent: These are the things that have been weighing on my shoulders. Like you said, having a parent gone for any length of time is probably not comfortable, but doing what I can to help her understand what’s going on with her father being gone… And then just really contemplating how we handle my deployment and whether or not she comes with me, and making that as comfortable for her as we can. And you’ve given me a lot of reassurance in my gut, which is that she needs to be with her mom.
Janet: Oh good. Yes. So this thing about comfort… Children do learn when there’s some stress, a certain amount of stress. So this whole situation with her dad, she can learn a lot from that. And I don’t even know that she would be stressed, again, if she’s used to that: this is my relationship with my dad — he’s gone a lot and then he comes back. Children normalize that for themselves. But if there was some stress, there’s learning that happens through writing those letters and through the uncomfortable feelings and all that. But then there’s a point where the stress gets more overwhelming, then there’s less learning. And less ability to function and that’s the difference in your family right now between your husband being gone and you being away from her.
Parent: You know, sometimes I can forget that there are hundreds of thousands of military families that have endured these challenges before we have, and many, many of the children who come from military families are incredibly well adjusted and very resilient and very adaptable as a result of having had those experiences at a young age.
Janet: Yes, and then the other part of that is… because now you’re making me feel like I really want to add this… If you did leave her, she would be okay. What you would want to happen… If her dad’s not there either, you would want to, as much as possible, foster the development of a secondary attachment figure, which would be whoever her primary caregiver ends up being — her grandparent, if that was the caregiver or another relative. Sometimes, understandably, the parent might get threatened by the relationship that child has with this other person. And I don’t think you would, because you’re so generous in your thoughts about your daughter and what’s best for her. But that happens on all different levels. Even with people that work full time and just aren’t home day to day. But that’s what you want: somebody that they feel deep trust and love for. That’s going to help your child to thrive.
It’s very healthy for children to develop more attachment figures than just their parents. It’s a gift to be able to bond with other people as well.
So just putting it out there that you want your child to bond with that person that’s going to care for them. That’s the best thing that could happen. And if you come home and they seem to be more comfortable with that person, it’s really okay for all the reasons that you and I talked about in regard to her dad coming home. It’s really okay. You will find your way back to each other.
Anyway, just wanted to add that because you brought to mind that other people may not have this ability that you do to make a choice.
Parent: Right. Yeah, absolutely. Well, Janet, I could not be more appreciative of your time. I’m just such a fan of your work. It has so influenced my relationship with my daughter and the way that I see her and I think my happiness as a parent, there is truly no one else that I could feel comfortable receiving this advice from than you.
Janet: Thank you so much. And thank you again for sharing your journey with other parents. It’s brave of you and generous of you, so thank you so much. I have no doubts about you handling all of this. I think even before we talked. Because you already get it. So just keep up the wonderful work with your dear girl.
Parent: Thank you, Janet.
If you liked the format of these recorded consultations there are 6 more at sessionsaudio.com. There’s a description of each recording and you can download them individually or as a set for under $20. That’s sessionsaudio.com.
Also, both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com, and in audio, where they’re particularly popular, at Audible.com.
Take care now. We can do this.