Monday, January 26, 2009

Helping Children Adjust When a Parent Travels for Work

Yesterday’s post was about travel, and I’ll be continuing with that theme today! This time, I’m going to address the issue of helping children to cope when a parent is often away from home on business. This scenario is typical for my sister’s family. Her husband works for a multinational company in sales management, and he is on the road nearly every week. My sister is almost like a single parent, having to handle all of the parenting and household duties most of the time. Children can have a tough time with having a parent gone. My niece and nephew are entering adolescence, so they understand the situation a little better now, but in the early years of his career, my brother-in-law often had to tackle difficult questions such as: “Why can’t you come to my hockey game?” or “Will you be able to attend my school party?”

Tom Daly is also a business traveling parent with four young children. When he got those “tough questions” from his kids, he had difficulty explaining why he had to leave home in language that they could understand. He knew this was a challenge for other traveling parents, especially when their children were between 4 and 8 years old. Children this age rely on rituals and routines to help them feel secure, which are often disrupted when a parent travels. Therefore, Tom consulted with Dr. Sherryl Goodman, an Emory University psychologist and expert on children’s issues, to get some tips on helping his children feel less stressed about his absence. Here is her advice:

1. Recognize that your child may feel anxious about you leaving. Children between the ages of 4 and 8 are often dependent on their parents’ presence to help them to feel secure. They also like to count on the routines of their daily lives. Parents going on business trips stir up both of these needs.

2. Give your child basic information about your trip.

3. Let your child know about your trip a few days ahead of your leaving. Give him or her lots of opportunities to ask questions about your trip. When preparing for your trip, plan to spend a little extra time with your child before you leave.

4. Let your child know what they can count on about being in touch with you during your trip.

5. Develop a routine that involves your child in your trip preparations. Show your child some pictures on the internet of where you will be.

6. Review with your child what he or she will be doing while you are away and who will be there to take care of him or her.

7. While away, make every effort to call home at a time when you will be able to talk with your child.

8. When you return, take time to transition back into your child’s life.

9. Let your child know what your trip was like. Reading a book from the “Sometimes I Work in...” series gives you an opportunity to tell your child about all different aspects of your travels. And reading together gives your child a special time to reconnect with you.

10. After your trip, use the opportunity to reinforce your child’s coping skills so they can manage stress even better in the future.

Tip number 9 above refers to a series of books that Tom Daly developed that helps parents and children talk about the trip so it’s less mysterious. The four books in the series include:

Sometimes I Work in…New York

Sometimes I Work in…Atlanta

Sometimes I Work in…Chicago

Sometimes I Work in…Ft. Lauderdale

The books are customizable so parents can fill in their own details as they read them to their children. For instance, one page says, “Getting ready to leave, I have so many things to pack!...What do I take with me to Atlanta?” And then the adult can talk with the child about the kinds of things he will need for the trip. Another page gives the parent a chance to talk about the activities he does at the hotel. Several pages allow the parent to describe his plans, but then the child is also encouraged to talk about what she will be doing while Dad or Mom is gone. There’s even a removable postcard at the end of the book that parents can send back to their children. There’s also a fill-in-the-blank page where parent and child can write down details about the trip so the child can revisit it while he’s gone. These books are an excellent tool for opening the lines of communication about a parent’s absence and a child’s anxiety.

All four books are available through Amazon at the links provided above. Tom also writes a very helpful blog for traveling parents at If you’re a business traveler with young kids, I encourage you to visit the blog, check out Tom’s books and, especially, communicate with your children frequently. This will help them feel secure in your absence and reassure them of your love.

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  1. Anonymous3:00 AM

    Hey Susan, I saw your comment on Mothersclick and checked out your blog and wow, this post hit home. Our family is super, super close, (last year my hubby left for six weeks for work and after three the company flew us out to meet him), the three weeks were hard, but with his new job he'll be leaving and we won't be able to join him. To prepare I've convinced myself and him that we don't really need him around but I didn't think about how the kids would feel. Thanks for the post.


  2. So true. Earlier on in our marriage, I was the one who travelled for work. I would get to the airport and cry every time, as it hurt so much to be away from my family. I'd worry constantly about the kids, and never be able to completely relax.
    For the past few years, my husband has been the major income earner and he travels a lot. The kids - and he - find it easier to cope when he is away, since I do most of the parenting, but it's still tough on everyone. I find my son, 8, in particular, misbehaves for a few days whenever Daddy leaves, settles down, and misbehaves again for a few days when he gets back. That's his way of dealing with his feelings.
    We cope by phoning constantly. My husband can't always be available, but we talk to him at least twice a day - in the mornings and to say goodnight.
    If it's a long trip, he'll often bring them something back for being good.
    He takes photos and shows them what he does.
    Occasionally, when we can sort it out with school etc, we go with him on a work trip, and the kids and I do things during the day, then see Daddy at night and on the weekends. He'll then often show us the places he has been working and tell what he's been doing.
    It's hard, but this is my husband's job, and they understand that.
    We recently moved cities and countries. Part of the reason was that my husband travels a little less, but also, the company is family-friendly; very open to us going with my husband when we can. And when my husband is working in the office, it's fine for him to occasionally take the kids into work with him there.
    It's made a big difference to our quality of life!

  3. Anonymous11:03 AM

    First time visitng your site--thought I'd add something my friend does when her husband is out of town...As soon as the kids come home from school she turns on a tape recorder for all of the "guess what happened today talk". She does this many times at dinner as well. When Dad comes home they all listen to the tape together and rehash the everyday conversation that generally gets missed when you are out of town. Sometimes the every day conversations give more insight then the highlights of the week!

  4. Hi Sandra, Welcome to Susan Heim on Parenting! Thanks so much for visiting. I love your friend's idea about the tape. What a wonderful way to help a family re-connect and keep Dad informed.


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