Staying Connected With Your Children When Separated From Them
Psychosocial Director GRAHAM FAWCETT and Adolescent Counsellors CLAUDIA SMITH and GEMMA CAMACHO offer practical insights and tips for parents who cannot be with their children at the moment.
‘My 8 year old is telling me I don’t love her anymore and, if I did, I’d come home’. This story, often repeated, forms the basis of some of our work with individuals as COVID-19 lockdowns continue around the world.
Some parents find themselves making promises they can’t keep; ‘I’ll be home really soon’; ‘when I come home, I’ll bring you anything you want’. Other parents find themselves exhausted by children incessantly asking if they are loved, or children being angry and impossible to speak to.
The following are some possible tips that may help you navigate these tricky areas. Key to all of these tips is remembering that children and young adolescents are not little adults. They have very different ways of thinking about the world and it can help to adapt our interactions with them when at a distance. Some of these tips will work best where a video link can be established, others need a phone link or e-mail connection.
Very young children (under 8) struggle with conversation on-line. They only think in concrete terms and so the conversation can quickly consist of lists (what did you do today? What have you had to eat?) which is dull for the adult and not fulfilling for children either. Children are fascinated by what they can see and hear, as well as (brief) stories about what the parent has been up to. Some children will enjoy a tour, others will want to see a particular aspect (where do you eat, work, wash…?), the security guard or other people. Try to do things with young children rather than expecting a conversation. Games, even if (particularly if!) silly provide endless entertainment and memories – ‘I spy’ or ‘noughts and crosses’ would need thinking through but are possible, and the thinking through can become part of the fun. Reading stories (or making them up) never gets old either.
Slightly older children (up to 11 or 12) benefit from story-telling, games for older children and more about what the parent is up to. By this stage they will be more interested in how things work, how to go from home to work or what you do all day when locked down.
Adolescents will be more independent, will want to try and be less interested in you and will resist enquiries about their own lives. It is really helpful to ask them and maybe to use some online resources (Google ‘questions to ask teenagers’) or make use of some well known games such as ‘never have I ever….’.
A ‘watch party’ on Facebook (or similar), so you can watch a film or tv show together and chat at the same time; a virtual meal together with the rest of the family; family games night e.g. charades, pictionary; online collaborative games for two people e.g. chess, scrabble or battleships.
It can help to do something together, so there is a focus to your time together and this can be a base for discussion and just being with each other and staying connected.
Send photos or messages during the day to stay in touch and communicate you are thinking of your teen. Brief interactions during the day can be just as meaningful as a longer phone call.
For those with low bandwidth or economic restrictions, texting may be helpful, providing you keep texts factual and concrete. Again shorter texts several times a day are more helpful, usually, than trying to write about everything via text in one go.
Handling the tricky conversations
If they ask ‘When are you coming home?’, then bare in mind that very young children don’t understand ‘as soon as possible’ or ‘as soon as I can’. They tend to believe grownups literally and so saying ‘next month, I hope’ means ‘next month’ and they will start to count the days. It is better to say what you do know in a positive way and generalize the issue away from just you e.g. ‘We all have to stay where we are’, ‘no one is allowed to travel’, ‘we all want to be safe so need to stay where we are’.
Older children won’t take such statements at face value and so it can be helpful to help them to think through with you why you are unable to come home. Breaking the process down and helping them to understand why you can’t get to the airport, that there are no flights, that there are quarantine processes in place will help to give them the understanding they need.
They might also say ‘If you loved me, you’d come home’. Young children have an almost magical belief in what adults can do. The question often implies that children feel abandoned or alone and that they are missing their parent. It can be helpful to acknowledge that and to tell your children that you love them even if they ask the same question repeatedly. They will be taking comfort from familiar routines and seeking reassurance. Having something with you that you can say reminds you of them will help the child understand you are holding them in mind.
Older children will be helped by the reassurance that they can still do things with their parent, still talk with them and that their parent wants the best for them.
As far as possible, set schedules to speak with children. This helps the spouse at home as the children can know when the next call is due rather than asking incessantly about it. It helps children to settle, to build some anticipation and to know they are being held in mind.
In being apart it can be helpful for the parent who is separated to think about the memories they want to try and build with their children during this time. Children will remember emotions better than events and so it is helpful to avoid frustration (not keeping to the schedule), disappointment (not having time to play) and fear (parent may never come home) and build in happiness or joy (parents know how to make their children laugh), playfulness and reassurance.