Very often OCHA staff either working in the field or on surge are living apart from their children. How this experience is felt may vary from one family to another. There are some aspects of behavior we need to understand in children when father/mother or both, live and work away.
Today we will focus on the children’s side. What might they feel when their mother or father is away? How can they understand and minimize the impact of such a situation?
Parenting is about being involved
Parenting is about being involved, about showing children that they are loved, about being available to them.
Although it is difficult to be far away, the physically distant parent can still play a valuable role in the life of their child. Nowadays, even with the latest means of electronic communication, separation from children is considered as a significant source of stress for international staff. However, national staff in non-family field missions may also be affected. In a recent field visit to South Sudan in May 2014 we were able to observe that about 80% of national staff have had family members relocated to neighboring countries due to the recent civil unrest in their country.
…the physical separation hurts. Many miles means no way to hug, to brush back a forelock of hair, to drop in on football practice… The parent feels the pain and so does the child.
~Dr. Isolina Ricci, ‘Mom’s House Dad’s House’
It is imperative to understand that the lack of contact can be interpreted as a lack of love. This is particularly prominent in children under the age of eight because concepts such as time and space are still underdeveloped.
Toddlers and infants may not remember the deployed person
For children to feel loved, it is very important for parents to work together to encourage a
healthy relationship between children and the parent who is alway on mission. For couples who are both on mission, grandparents or other family members should play a close role in the life of the child.
One important aspect of parenting from a distance is making regular efforts to stay in touch, including small efforts just to let the child know that the parent is thinking about them and missing him or her.
Children of all ages need to have a clear and exact understanding of how and when they will have that crucial contact with their father or mother. Children who have no idea when the next contact with parents might be could feel tremendous loss and grief at the end of each contact with their parent.
My two-year old daughter always cries as if she will never see me again. It is always painful for me.
~An OCHA female staff on surge in Africa.
For the absent parent, mission assignments can produce guilt about missing family events, abandoning everyday routines, being absent to fulfill family responsibilities, or leaving beloved ones behind.
Always reassure your children you will still be connected with them while on mission.
Here some practical suggestions on how to make your mission assignment less stressful for the entire family.
- Give your child immediate and regular proof of your connections with him or her with a phone call or an email. The length and content are not nearly as essential as the frequency of the conversations, and the presence of something from the absent parent.
- Children’s reactions at homecoming may not be what the parents expected or hoped for.
Toddlers and infants may not remember the deployed person and may be shy.
- Older children (over 10 years) may be resentful of the time that the deployed person was away from the family. Children may need time to get reacquainted. Give it time and patience.
- Contact your child’s school so you know a little about his or her world. During leave, make time to attend school events or visit the classes of your child. Meeting their teacher demonstrates interest in your child’s school work.
- Send pictures of yourself, your life and your environment. Consider posting/mailing them so your child can hold them in their hand. When sending a picture, make little notes about the place. You may have nice photos of your family and children too that can be displayed on your monitor at work and in your wallet.
- Each time your children are with you, be prepared for changes, new habits, likes and dislikes (especially with teenagers).
- Collect things that remind you of your children and put them in a special “thinking of you” box.
- Let your children know you miss them, but that you have interesting work in a very different place/environment. Reassure them that you are OK.
- Establish a family website where both parent and child can post news and photographs.
- If the Security situation allows, videotape some of your activities, so your children may understand better about your work and routine.
As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours.
It’s not only children who grow. Parents do too.
The OCHA Staff Counselling Unit is dedicated to providing psychosocial support and guidance on how to face long distance parenting.