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Helping Kids Adjust to a Parent’s Travels : Child Care: Children most affected by parental absence are between ages 2 and 7, experts say.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There are no long-term studies on how children are affected by frequent-flier parents. But experts agree that without special planning before a parent leaves on a business trip and special contact while the parent is away, a child may feel neglected--and show resentment when the parent returns.

It depends on age and personality, but generally a younger child needs the most help adjusting to a mother or father’s going away on business, said William Wimmer, chairman of the child and adolescent committee at the Maryland Psychiatric Society in Baltimore.

Children most affected by a parent’s absence are between ages 2 and 7, experts say, because they are unlikely to understand the concept of returning.

Once older than 7, a child begins to understand that business is something a mother or father just has to do.

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“Some children have separation anxiety and will have imaginary fears--like dad is not coming back,” said Don Fleming, a child psychoanalyst in Los Angeles.

Fleming suggests that a parent begin preparing a child a week before leaving.

To help young children cope, many parents who travel record favorite bedtime stories or special messages on tape so that a child can hear the parent’s voice while the parent is away.

Psychologists say that a picture of the parent or the entire family together can also comfort young children, who may be unable to maintain a mental image of the missing parent.

Another idea beneficial to young children is to “make them a part of your plans. Draw a map and show where you are going to be,” Wimmer said.

A chart showing how long the parent will be away is also helpful because it allows a child to mark off each day of the trip.

Fleming also suggests that the traveler “write out a stack of post cards before you go and send one a day.”

Barrie Greiff, a Harvard psychiatrist who specializes in travel-related stress, has said it is important to give a child the phone number of where the parent will be visiting with permission to call at any time--even in the middle of a meeting.

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Setting up a specific time for a call home each day gives children something to look forward to, said Mary Jo Czaplewski, executive director of Minneapolis-based National Council on Family Relations.

But be sure the phone calls serve as a time to share the events of the day and not as a “grilling hour” about homework or grades, advises journalist Andree Aelion Brooks in her book “Children of Fast-Track Parents.”

The book also warns: “Even with the best planning, do not expect a warm welcome upon return. . . . The child is simply returning the kind of treatment he or she believes was received from the parent.”

Although several psychologists advise bringing back gifts from a business trip, they also warn against extravagance because it sends a message that the parent has done something wrong in leaving.

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“Children need to realize (business trips) are a normal part of life,” Fleming said.

A parent who learns that he or she must leave on a business trip within hours is not able to prepare a child, but experts recommend leaving a piece of the parent’s clothing with the child or placing shoes next to the door, guaranteeing to the youngster that the parent will return.

While many youngsters feel neglected when only one parent is around, older children tend to see the parent’s absence as a time to get away with murder, Fleming said.

If that is the case, “pull your child aside and say, ‘Look, I notice that you try to get away with a lot of stuff while I’m away, and we won’t stand for that,’ ” Fleming advised.

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There are several problems inherent in taking a child along on a business trip, such as arranging for a baby sitter to care for the child while the parent is conducting business or having a child miss school. But if it can be arranged once in a while, it may benefit both parent and child.

“Most kids are fascinated by what their parents do for a living,” Wimmer said. “Taking them along on a business trip can be an occasion for learning and closeness.”


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