What do you do when your child misses a parent? My toddler has been randomly asking, “Where’s Daddy?” throughout the day, and I always respond truthfully: “He’s at the office.” I even describe what his dad is doing so that “office” doesn’t seem like just another word that means, “not here.”
I wondered where the onslaught of questions was coming from, and figured my son has noticed his dad’s irregular schedule. Unlike me with my set hours, my husband is working on a tough project these past few months and has had the most irregular hours these days: sometimes he’s home early and some nights he isn’t until after our toddler is asleep. Recently he only saw our son for five minutes in the morning before heading out.
And so the “Where’s Daddy?” questions started popping up. He would ask at random times with no relevance to what we were doing and wouldn’t necessarily ask in any particular tone. Just, “Where’s Daddy?”
“Maybe that’s his way of saying he misses me,” my husband suggested. And up until he said that, I hadn’t realized that my toddler had no way of expressing “missing” someone. I had always assumed he asked questions to get answers, rather than to convey a particular emotion. He’s aware of emotions like happy, sad, mad and such, but we hadn’t addressed the terrible feeling he must have for missing his dad. At least I get to see my husband in the evenings; my toddler is fast asleep by the time his dad comes home.
So how can we help when our child misses a parent?
Address and label your child’s emotions.
Your child probably has no idea what he’s feeling and doesn’t know how to define it the way you and I can. When you sense your child is upset or missing mom or dad, label that emotion: “Are you sad that mama’s not here today?” Associating words with his emotions assures him that this is normal and will go away eventually.
Be patient when your child is being difficult.
The worst thing for my husband is that my toddler takes it out on him. Rather than jumping all over his dad when he comes home, my son instead prefers me over his dad and fusses if his dad so much as tries to spend time with him. My husband becomes discouraged, and it’s a terrible cycle that could continue all because they miss each other but my toddler still doesn’t know how to express his hurt from missing him.
Explain where the other parent is.
The next few times he asked about his dad, I elaborated on the answer. “He’s at the office. Do you miss Daddy? Sometimes it doesn’t feel good when we don’t see Daddy for a long time because he’s not home. That’s called ‘missing’ someone.”
He still asks where his dad is, but I noticed that the more I explained his emotions, the less likely he was to give his dad some ‘tude. I continued to describe what his dad was doing at work so he knows his dad’s absence is not for lack of wanting to be with him. On a recent day off, we even visited him for lunch where our kiddo was able to see his office.
Offer items that belong to the missed parent.
Give your child a ‘placeholder,’ or an item that belongs to the missed parent. “Hold on to Daddy’s watch and keep it safe while I’m gone,” you might say. “When I come home, you can give it back to me.” This reassures your child that the parent will come back and that he’ll see him later. He’ll have a token of his dad’s that his to hold on to in his absence. And your child will feel special for having been given the responsibility of taking care of the special item.
Make crafts for the other parent.
A great way for kids to manage their emotions of missing a parent is to make a craft or art project for them. Not only are they filling their time with something enjoyable, but they’re doing something while thinking of their mom or dad.
The next time your child greets the other parent, she can present her with the craft she made, making the reunion even more positive.
Offer a visual cue for the parent’s return.
Older children who can tell time can rely on a clock to know when mom or dad is coming home. Or if a parent is away for several days, mark a calendar and cross off the days leading up to her return. With each passing day or hour marked on a sheet of paper, your child can count down when she’ll be reunited with her mom or dad.
Contact the other parent when possible.
A phone call or video can do wonders when a child misses a parent. If you’re going out town, schedule a phone call with your child every night. You can even read her a book over the phone, with you reciting the words and she flipping through the pages. Or log onto your computer for a video chat—seeing your face can help ease any difficult emotions, for both parent and child.
In an ideal world, my husband, toddler and I would spend every single day together (well, most days!). But in the meantime, while my husband’s project is still wrapping up, we rely on addressing emotions, placeholders, and plenty of patience and love to help our toddler address the times he misses his dad.
Get more tips on dealing with your child’s emotions:
- Dealing with Your Child’s Sadness
- How to Deal when Your Child Cries at Drop Off
- 9 Useful Techniques for Dealing with Anxiety in Young Children
- 10 Children’s Books about Separation Anxiety
- Parenting Mistakes: Judging Your Child’s Emotions
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