How can I prepare my little niece for her dad's absence?
My sister has two beautiful daughters, aged two years and three months respectively. This September she faces the daunting task of managing them on her own as her partner will be seconded to Afghanistan for between six and nine months.
This is the second time in as many years that she has had to deal with this. The first time her eldest daughter was only three months old when her husband went away; this time she will be nearly three. She has many of her own worries to contend with also. However, her biggest concern is that she doesn't know how to explain to her eldest that 'daddy has to go away' for a long time. She doesn't know how to reason with her in a way that helps her to feel secure and happy, and to minimise the sadness and separation anxiety, which I'm sure will be inevitable.
When should she start telling her daughter, how much can a three-year-old understand and what kind of reactions can she expect from her daughter?
I am not sure of the circumstances of your sister's partner's secondment to Afghanistan but given how dangerous a country it is I can imagine that she is concerned for his safety.
Indeed, given that the move isn't scheduled to happen for nine months it may feel like a real weight hanging over their family, making it difficult to really enjoy the time they have together for the next while. I am sure you too are worried about your sister, her partner and how they will cope.
As in many of the stressful situations that families have to face, it is always more helpful for parents to try to regulate, manage, or reduce the stress that they face, prior to worrying about or dealing with their children's potential stress.
This is based on the principle that unless you can mind yourself you will find it hard to mind your children. That said, the joint stresses of missing her partner and his practical help and support while he is away, along with the stress of worrying about his safety while he is away are, I am sure, great.
Partners of Irish soldiers who have served, or are serving, in war-torn countries on various peace-keeping missions are probably best placed to fully understand what your sister might be going through.
It may even be that there are support groups for partners left behind and some of those men and women might be able to talk to your sister.
It is also the case that your sister has coped with a similar situation before and so, hopefully, she can draw on those coping strategies again.
Talking about her own fears and the pressures she anticipates, with her partner and with you and her wider family, will help to put the challenges in context.
The old adage of 'a problem shared is a problem halved' does apply though, and she will hopefully feel she has less of a burden the more she talks to the people around her.
Specifically when it comes to her children, she may find that she can't adequately prepare them for the separation itself. It will be very hard for a two- or three-year-old to understand the concept of the time involved in her dad being away. Toddlers this age live very much in the present moment.
So, while it will be helpful to discuss her partner's trip, a few weeks in advance, with her older daughter the reality of him being away may still come as a surprise and will still be perceived at times as a great loss for her daughter.
The harder work will be to remain supportive, understanding and empathetic with her daughter, who may act out her disappointment, distress and sadness at missing her dad in more tantrums.
Your sister can still talk empathetically to her daughter, even if her daughter doesn't fully understand the complexity of what is said. The understanding and soothing tone of voice your sister can use will be equally effective in helping her daughter to process the potentially difficult feelings.
Some of the kinds of feelings to look out for are 'missingness' (wanting him to be around and available right now), anxiety (will he ever come back?), despair (when will I ever see him again?), sadness (it is always better when he is here), anger (it isn't fair that I have to do without my dad), blame (it is your fault that I don't have my dad here), indifference (I don't care if he is here or not) and potentially a range of other feelings.
With the continued progress in technology, such as VoIP, that can allow free video-calls either from computer to computer or with internet-enabled phones, I am sure your sister and her partner will be able to arrange for the children to see and talk to their dad regularly.
Even though it might be hard for her partner, it will be good if he too can acknowledge the difficult feelings his daughter may have.
The really challenging times for parents are when children's troublesome feelings coincide with our own. For example, a tired and hungry child who throws a strop on the kitchen floor after a day out rarely gets much understanding from a parent who is also tired, hungry and grumpy. But that is just nature.
It is also the reason that your sister really needs to rely on the social supports around her so that she can feel on a relatively stable emotional platform herself for as much of the time as possible. Then she is more likely to be able to meet her daughter's emotional needs without wanting to crumble herself.
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