Absence does not make the heart grow fonder.
Equally, out of sight is not out of mind. However, if we are frequently out of the house before our children get up, and home after they have gone to bed, or if our job routinely takes us away from the family home for days, weeks or months, we cannot be surprised if our children react negatively or - and not to be unnecessarily melodramatic - go out of their minds.
If it becomes increasingly obvious that our absence is crushing a child's spirit, then serious decisions need to be made to redress the balance.
First consideration: Change of job.
Second consideration: Change of job requirement.
If we are not prepared to do either of these, then we find ourselves in the realm of percentages and statistics, weighing up our little one's lowness of heart and exasperation. Is that a relatively low price to pay for giving them a certain level of lifestyle?
We cannot reason with ourselves that it is our child's future that we are securing. Such reasoning is self-defeating for a child who needs us in the here and now. If it was a choice between moving to a smaller house and having fewer toys, or having your absence, your child would choose you in an instant.
If it is impossible for us to change our circumstances, then we must be prepared for damage limitation. We are prepared for a negative environment at home. We do our best, whenever present, to make up for lost time. This is not done with gifts, or reminders of how grateful they should be for what they have got. It is what they have not got that they are pining for. The simple fact is: The child wants the parent, they need the parent. And the parent is not there. So, when we are there we need to be there, as a family, but also making time for each individual child, giving them our exclusive attention.
A parent's absence must be prepared for with empathy and recognition of a child's hurt feelings. Don't allow the child to wake up one morning and we not be there. This only adds insult to injury. Rather, we can prepare our child for our absence well in advance. This can be done even with very small children.
Communicate in the child's native language of toys and play
- Assume they will understand that we are going to go away
- Show them on the calendar - show them the present date, the date we will be leaving, the date we will be coming back. Show them how days can be marked off.
- Using toys - bears, dolls, cars and bricks - enact and re-enact every aspect of our departure and absence. Do this every day until we go. Persevere with this even when the child initially shows little interest.
- Don't be afraid to emphasise how sad our child will be during our absence.
- On the other hand, try to avoid telling our child how much we will miss them while we are away. To a child, if we really missed them so much, we wouldn't be going away.
- Leave a recorded message for the children to listen to.
There is no easy answer to the question of parental absence, but a bit of compassionate forethought can go a long way to easing the time a parent is away from their much-loved children.
Rory Sullivan writes Hamelife , a website dedicated to helping parents negotiate the unpredictable waters of parent-child communication. With the 30 Ways at its heart, Hamelife encourages parents to avoid exasperating their children by embracing empathy, respect, and patience.