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Guest Post By: Kelli Brewer
Holidays are a time when families come together, spend time with one another, and thank the Lord for all of their blessings, but if a loved one is far away, it can put a damper on things. For children, it may be hard to understand their loved one’s absence, and they may have a hard time coping when their loved one has to miss out on special occasions. To keep your child (whether you are the parent or the legal guardian) positive and upbeat, communicate the situation to them, allow other relatives to fill in when necessary, find fun ways for them to stay connected with their loved one, and let them know that no matter what, God is with your child and the loved one they long to be with.
Give Them Details
When it comes to telling your child that a family member will be absent for a period a time, preparing your child depends on their age, personality, temperament, and family situation. Whether the absence is due to traveling, deployment, a move, or medical treatment, it is important that you are as open and honest with your child as they ask you to be, and realize that they may not understand. Some reasons for a loved one’s departure may be more sensitive than others, and your child may have questions that you don’t know how to answer, and that’s okay. It’s important that you try, and they’ll recognize and be comforted that you’re making an effort to keep them out of the dark. For example, if a loved one enters addiction treatment, your child may have a lot of questions about what they are struggling with. It may not feel appropriate to bombard an elementary-aged child with information on what it means to be addicted. However, it will be helpful to let them know that your family will play an important part in helping your loved one feel better, but right now, God is working to heal them.
Time out when you will let the child know of the absence. For children 3 years old and younger, they haven’t yet grasped the concept of time, so telling them you will be gone for one month could translate to tomorrow. Even elementary-aged children may have a hard time differentiating five days from one week.
Rather than focus on the time specifics, use the time before the absence to simply remind them that it is going to happen so that it doesn’t take them by surprise. For older children, give them advanced notice so they have adequate time to get as used to the idea as possible. To help children visualize the time frame, let them pick out a calendar and mark the leave and return dates in colorful marker or pen. Each day, let your child cross out the day or mark it off with a sticker. Alternatively, you could try putting things into a perspective that makes sense to them, such as, “After we attend three Sunday services, Dad will be back home.”
When you are talking to your child, take cues from them and follow their lead. Some may ask a lot of questions and want to know every single detail, such as where you will be located on a map, where you will sleep, or what you will be doing. Others may simply want to know when you will be home. Encourage your child to ask questions and express their emotions. Each situation is different, so determine what information is appropriate for your child to know.
Keep Them Involved
During holidays, your child may be sad or upset that their loved one isn’t there to participate in the activities. Document the event with a camera or recorder, or let your child video chat with the loved one during fun activities such as dyeing Easter eggs or opening gifts. If video chat isn’t an option, set up a time for your child to talk on the phone with them and tell them all about their day and activities they participated in. Many churches now offer their services through live, online streams, so if attending church on Sunday with their loved one is a tradition your child looks forward to, ask your loved one to “attend” the service online so they can talk about the sermon afterward like they always would. You may also want to consider letting your child draw a picture or write a letter. If your child isn’t old enough to write, transcribe it for them.
Regardless of what holiday you are celebrating, it is important to not only document it, but honor traditions. Even if a family member is absent, children often count on certain traditions. It is important to continue them to reassure them that although some things have changed, others have remained the same. Having aunts, uncles, and grandparents around can still make the holiday feel like a family event, and it softens the blow of missing out on an absent mom or dad.
If your child expresses sadness over a family member not being able to participate in a holiday tradition, suggest a new tradition that everyone can participate in, or try a spin on one you already have. For example, if your family says a special prayer at Easter dinner, work with your family member ahead of time and ask them to contribute to this year’s family prayer. Their words will bring comfort to your child, and even though it may feel a little different this year, the tradition will live on.
No matter what holiday your loved one is absent for, it can be tough on children who don’t understand or who have trouble dealing with this type of change. Try to keep the lines of communication open, and try to keep them involved to help them work through their emotions and stay connected with their loved one. Encourage them to pray for their loved one — and offer to join them in doing so — and reassure them that God will bring everyone together again when He knows the time is right.
Kelli writes for DeployCare, where she shares resources and solutions for issues commonly faced by military families.