What to do when your child misses a parent

What to do when your child misses a parent
I’ve mentioned the importance of addressing our kids’ emotions rather than brushing them off, but what happens if the emotion isn’t so apparent?

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 that he’s noticing his dad’s irregular schedule. Unlike me with my set hours, my husband is working on a tough project these past few months and consequently has had the most irregular 9-to-5 job these days: sometimes he’s home early and some nights he isn’t until after our toddler is asleep. Recently he only saw LO 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?” After a particular day where he kept asking about his dad so much that I finally called my husband to talk to him on the speaker phone, my husband and I discussed what could be going on.

“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 often fast asleep by the time his dad comes home. In other words, it must hurt not having his dad around.

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, LO 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.

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 expounded on 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 that he knows it’s not for lack of wanting to be with him that he’s not here. On a recent day off, we even visited him for lunch where LO was able to see his office.

We also give him “placeholders,” like my husband’s watch where he tells LO, “Hold on to Daddy’s watch and keep it safe while I’m gone. When I come home, you can give it back to me.” This helps him know that his dad will absolutely come back and that he’ll see him later. And if my toddler won’t see his dad at night or in the morning, we give him a stuffed toy monkey that he associates with his dad.

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.

What do you do when your child misses one parent?

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17 thoughts on “What to do when your child misses a parent

  1. Wonderful post! Josh isn’t even 2 yet and says “daddy train” (aka daddy went on the train to work) randomly during the day. I always just answer back “yes, daddy’s at work.” I never even thought he might be missing him! Whoops! Will need to try and expand on what I say from now on and not brush him off so quickly! Thank you for the good advice!

  2. My husband has to work at night, and sleep from when he gets home in the morning until around 3pm. My son has a hard time understanding why Daddy is home and sleeping and cannot come out to play. He will occasionally ask me about Daddy, and will even knock on the bedroom door and call to him: “Daddy! Where ahh you!?” If I have to go into the bedroom to get something, he will burst his way in and wake Daddy up for a kiss. It can be hard to balance this all out, and to help him express his feelings about it all.

    On the flip side, I recently went away overnight, and it was the first morning I was ever not home when Simon woke up. When I finally got home he wouldn;t let me out of his sight and would scream and cry if I left the room. He needed me to hold him all day, but I understood why.

  3. We had some separation issues stemming from me going back to work too soon with excessively long hours so have always been conscientious about this issue with Monkey. The counselor I saw for myself about it had tons of suggestions depending on the age including always having the same routine for leave-taking, making sure he always knew when I was leaving (never sneak away), at the same time not making a big deal of it, etc. We use “place holders” too. Sometimes in both directions–on days when he’s having a particularly hard time, Monkey will have me take a particular toy of his with me to work that I bring back at the end of the day. I’ll usually text him a photograph of the toy at my desk (he’s visited enough times that he knows what my work looks like). Another suggestion was to explain working in a positive way, “Mama has to go to work today because she promised to help the people there and they are counting on her. We make sure Daddy is always here to take care of you when Mama is at work.” We also try to always make it clear when I will be back (“for supper” or “right before bed” or “after bedtime so either Daddy can put you to bed or you can stay up late and wait for Mama, your choice”).

    Lately, we’ve noticed the opposite problem. We’ve never been particularly careful about my husband being clear about when he’s leaving and coming back so he may just run out to the store without telling Monkey (or me for that matter…) and now Monkey is starting to worry about where Daddy is. So now we’re trying to use the same conscientiousness with him as well.

    We do notice that with either of us, when we first return to the fold Monkey tends to be angry and not want to cuddle or play. So we sit at a distance and talk about feelings…his and our own. “I missed you today. I thought about you and wished I could be eating lunch with you.”

    Sorry for the novel length answer! Good topic.

    • I love your comment—thank you for the additional tips! I especially like the idea of describing the benefits of you working (I never thought of phrasing it that way… so awesome!). I wish there was a way to highlight your comment; all the suggestions seem really helpful and I’ll definitely try them with my kiddo.

  4. I think this will be very helpful for us soon. My husband will be starting a new job in a couple of months that will have him away all day everyday. Right now he mainly works from home. I do notice that sometimes when my husband is away my boy will start saying “Mama Dada Eli” in rapid succession over and over again. I think it’s his way of saying he wishes we were all together. When I ask him if that is what he is wanting he will smile at the relief of being understood and will be able to move on to something else.

  5. I’ve been lucky that the boys run to daddy and want to spend every minute with him when he is home. My 18 month old just started to ask about him and I will definitely be using placeholders from now on! Good idea!

  6. I’d never heard of the concept of a ‘placeholder’ but my two sometimes send a toy into work with Daddy – I guess it gives them a connection to him all day. Amazing how two toddlers can work out what they need before I’ve even caught on!

  7. My daughter was daddy’s girl from day one. So, she is constantly asking if he will join us on our jaunts around town. I don’t think I really thought about it as her missing him, even though it evoked that in me. I always just thought she was asking and questioning the motions of the day, which is her m.o. I let her talk to him throughout the day, when she wants but I bet the placeholder would be more productive for him 🙂

  8. This hits home tonight because my husband is out of town for a few days and my daughter is missing him terribly. She likes it when I talk about what he’s doing. We talk about him going up in a plane and then landing. And she likes to hear all about the wedding he’s officiating. There will probably be pictures on facebook even before he gets back so I’m planning on showing her those. And lots and lots of patience because she wants her daddy. And I don’t blame her one bit.

  9. Yet another informative post. Jayden is feeling the pain of having a Daddy who runs his own business. This means lots and lots of long hours and business related phone calls. Every time the door so much as creaks he assumes it’s his daddy coming home to him. You give great advice on how I can help him cope. We’ve been using stuffed animals to help out so far. But, I will certainly add in the other methods to make it a tad bit easier. Thank you!

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