When a Parent Has to Travel for Work

Business trips can present extra challenges to family life, but you can manage both successfully.
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When you have children, traveling for work--what many consider a perk--feels more like a downside. Going on a business trip, whether for a weekend or for a month or longer, is a difficult situation for parents and kids. Since there's likely very little you can do about it, these tips will help make those trips less stressful for your family.

Know when to tellThe time to share the news of your upcoming trip depends on your child's age and temperament. Toddlers and preschoolers don't understand the concept of time, and some elementary-age kids may still have trouble differentiating five days from one week, so it's best to give them only a couple of days' notice, says Stephanie Mihalas, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and founder of The Center for Well-Being in Los Angeles. Young children tend to get overly anxious about parents leaving, so shorter time frames reduce the length of time they worry, she explains. Older kids and tweens are more independent, so you can let them know at least three to four days ahead of time.

If you have to leave urgently and can't give much notice, tell your child as soon as possible to make sure you stay calm. Also, have a plan in place so she won't feel she's a last-minute thought.

Give the detailsTell your child when you're leaving, where you're going, what you'll be doing, how he can contact you, and when you'll return. Young kids may not understand what Monday or August 20th means, so mark your departure and return dates on a colorful calendar. Tell him to cross out one day each morning when he wakes up, and you'll be home on the day with the star (or whatever you choose). Help him understand where you'll be by showing photos, pointing out the location on a map, or, for older kids, researching it on the Internet or in a book. Let him know who will be taking care of him while you're away, and whether he will stay home or have to go elsewhere, like Grandma's house.

Stick to RoutinesKeep things on the homefront as close to normal as possible. Having a parent away on business is already difficult, so it's best not to make any additional changes that will disrupt kids' lives, says Rochelle Harris, Ph.D., a pediatric clinical psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City. If you child is staying with a babysitter or family member, leave detailed instructions on bedtimes, feeding schedules, who needs to be where when, and any other necessary information to keep things consistent.

Leave Mommy (or Daddy) RemindersGiving a child something that belongs to the absent person, such as a T-shirt or a photo, will keep his or her presence in the home and can reduce separation anxiety, Dr. Harris says. Leaving surprise notes will also help: Put them in easy-to-find places, like a toy chest, lunch bag, backpack, or a favorite shoe. And because bedtime can be especially stressful, Dr. Harris suggests videotaping yourself reading a book so the child or other parent can play the video during storytime.

Prevent Tough GoodbyesSneaking away, prolonging the departure, acting anxious, or displaying guilt can make "goodbye" even more challenging, Dr. Mihalas says. To make parting easier, she recommends giving your child a hug and kiss and saying, "I love you. I can't wait to see you when I come back, but I know you're going to have a good time." Then leave.

Check InOnce you're away, touch base with your child (and caretaker) every day. Daily chats allow kids to hear your voice and gives everyone time to share his or her day and discuss any concerns. Don't limit communication to your cell phone. Skype, FaceTime, or other video chat apps are fun and easy ways to keep in touch. The family could also bond by playing games or watching TV shows online.

Let Go (Somewhat)Connect, but not too often. Incessant calling or nagging could make the separation harder for kids and frustrate your spouse. Too much access to or from home can also make it difficult to tend to your work duties because you won't be as focused, and if your kids can contact you anytime, you'll likely receive calls for every little thing. Stay in touch but limit access and trust your significant other to handle situations at home.

Handle Home LifeIf you're doing the solo parenting while your spouse is away, it can be equally stressful. Prepare for your child's possible whining for the first hours or day and try to remain calm and reassure her. Stick to major routines like bedtime and naps, but don't knock yourself out trying to do things exactly as your partner does. Do what works for you and the kiddos. That includes having fun as a family and taking a breather alone. Make time to read while the kids are in bed, or have an hour or two of "me time" while they're at school. Everyone will benefit from a sane daddy or mommy.

Return with LoveAfter a long week of meetings, you probably can't wait to get home to relax. But "when kids haven't seen you for a while, they want to share everything that's happened, see what souvenirs you bought, and hear about your trip," Dr. Mihalas says. Being abrupt or saying you need alone time will make your child think he isn't important (after all, he feels you already had time away). Dr. Mihalas recommends spending at least 15 to 20 minutes with kids when you arrive home--giving hugs and kisses and catching up. Then you can have some downtime by saying you need to shower, unpack, or go for a walk after being on an airplane for so long. By spending time with your child first and making the transition a natural one, your kid won't take your desire for space personally. Moreover, making your return as positive as your departure means he will be less anxious next time you travel.

Originally published in the Month 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

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