Explaining Your Absence During Active Duty to Your Children

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October 14, 2001

Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson.

My Army Reserve unit is being called into active duty and, with what's happening in Afghanistan, I may even be sent overseas. As a single mom with a four-year-old daughter, I never imagined that I'd be in a situation like this. My mom and brother are willing to care for my daughter while I'm away, but how in the world can I explain this to a four-year-old and prepare her to cope with such a separation? Or, since she's so young, could she forget about me while I'm gone?

This will indeed be a challenging time for both you and your daughter. But your daughter is fortunate that she'll be in the care of two close relatives while you're away. There are several things you can do before and during your time apart that will help your daughter to thrive and, throughout the separation, to know that you and she are in each other's hearts.

Begin by doing everything you can to nurture your daughter's close relationship with her grandma and uncle. In the days before you leave, have them join you and your daughter for fun times together and look for opportunities to help them understand your daughter's routines and

When you know the plans for your reserve unit, explain to your daughter simply and clearly where you are going, what your job will be, and, most important, how and when you will communicate with her while you're gone. Be as simple and concrete as you can be, because this is what four-year-olds understand. If you know exactly where you will be, you could show her on a map. And if you know how long you'll be away, you could leave a calendar with her so she can mark off the days.

Take a photograph of you and your daughter together, make two prints, and put them in identical frames so each of you can keep them near your bed. As a bedtime ritual during your separation, tell her that every night right before you go to sleep you'll give her picture a kiss and you hope she'll do the same. (Be sure to clue Grandma and Uncle in on this plan, so they can remind your daughter each night that you're thinking of her and sending love her way.)

Before you leave, make audio- or video-tapes of you reading some of your daughter's favorite storybooks. Encourage your mom and brother to hold your daughter on their laps and have her follow along in the book while she listens to your familiar voice reading her favorites.

You don't mention whether your daughter will be cared for in her own home or at Grandma's house, but wherever she is, be sure she's surrounded with familiar objects and sources of comfort. Stuffed animals, cozy blankets or pillows, favorite tapes or CDs, even one of your bathrobes or flannel shirts--encourage her to choose the things that will help her feel most at home.

Since it may be difficult for you to send things to your daughter while you're away, especially if you do have to go overseas, prepare in advance several notes and little surprises that your mom and brother can give to your daughter on your behalf while you're away. Rather than focusing on how hard it is to be apart, emphasize the special things you imagine her doing with Grandma and Uncle. Keep messages up-beat and let your daughter know you'll be eager for her to tell you about all of her activities when you return.

Finally, provide a photo album and note paper so your mom and brother can engage your daughter in keeping a record of the things they do while you're away. Encourage them to have your daughter dictate her own stories while they write them down. Then look forward to the time when you return safely and you and your daughter can snuggle up and enjoy the album together.

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to mferick@tc.umn.edu or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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