Children of divorced parents must learn to cope with separations from people they love more quickly than children from intact families. Visitation schedules, no matter how thoughtfully or cooperatively constructed, just are not the same as being in the same house with both parents. Young children in these situations may need to be taught how to cope with these separations since they may have missed the opportunity that children from intact families usually have to ease into extended separations as they become emotionally mature enough to handle them.
As Dr. Mary Ann Little and I wrote in our book "Loving Your Children Better", there are strategies for helping children manage the sadness that can surprise both children and parents when kids feel the impact of a separation from someone they love (parent, friend, or grandparent). The strategies include things that a parent can do before, during, and after the separation occurs to help a child soothe themselves and develop the ability to feel sad, express the sadness appropriately, and then develop the ability to make themselves feel better.
Before the separation occurs:
When the child is NOT stressed, like at bedtime, talk with your child about the value of memories. Ask them to think about the person they love and to create a vivid and detailed picture of that person in their heads. If they have trouble getting a clear mental picture, show the child a recent photo of the person (preferably one with the child in the picture too) to help. Talk to the child about how they can always create this picture in their heads any time they want to, and even when the person can't be there, they will always have their mental picture (memory) of the person with them. Prompt the child to remember a fun experience from their last visit, and point out how that memory helps the child to feel better. Teach the child that looking at a photo or remembering the mental picture is a way to cope with sadness when the person can't be there. Give the child a photo of you to put in their backpack on visits to look at if they miss you (if the other parent doesn't have photo of you next the child's bed in their home). Make sure you have photos of the other parent in the child's room.
During a separation:
For young children between age 3 and 5 (and sometimes up to age 7), an object or experience can trigger overwhelming feelings of sadness for the absent parent or grandparent. When these feelings break through, savvy parents can help the child by following these simple steps:
1. Soothe child by having him or her sit in your lap, and then ask the child to think of their mental picture of mom, grandma, or dad.
2. If the child can't get a mental picture, get the photo of the person and ask the child to remember "that fun time with Grandma that we talked about".
3. If the child is still upset and can't be soothed, then offer to call the person so the child can reconnect (if that is possible and the timing of the call is not likely to be disruptive to Grandma's schedule). If the timing is bad, offer to call at a specific later time ("let's call Grandma today when you get home from school").
4. Remind the child that feeling sad is a signal about how much they love the person, that feeling sad is OK, that talking about feeling sad can help, and that they will always have their memories to help them feel better.
After the separation:
1. When the child has been reunited with the person they missed, prompt them pay attention to the fun things that they did during the visit so that they can build more memories for their "memory bank".
2. Remind the child that each of their fun experiences with mom, or grandma, or whomever, creates another memory for their "memory bank" that they can use to feel better when they miss the person or become sad.
3. Ask the person to talk to child about how they remember the child when the child is not with them, and perhaps even to give the child a small object or gift that is a "special way for you to remember that I love you when you're not here".
4. Take photo of the child with that person and put it in a frame next to the child's bed and tell the child to use the photo if their mental picture needs a boost.
Developing emotional attachments and coping with separations from people we love are the foundations of healthy relationships at every stage in life. Few lessons that parents teach their children have more lasting value.