Q&A: how to communicate with toddler when we are apart for two weeks

I'm doing that Fast Company Influence Project thing, so click here and it'll tell how much online influence I have. (Is this going to be just a glorified slam book? I hope not…) And now to the question.

Kathrine writes:

"This weekend I brought my 28 month old son to my parents house for a2 week "vacation" (for everyone except my parents).   The idea was that
he would get out of the summer heat in the city and be in a cooler
climate, have lots of time outdoors, go to the pool, dig in the dirt,
and do all the things he loves… only with his grandparents, not his
parents. I'm also due with my second child in six weeks and needed time
to get in a few weeks of work and dissertation writing before baby
arrival.

I started explaining two days before I left that I had to go back
to NY to go to work and keep his dada company and that we would see him
soon.  And we together talked about all the fun things that he would do
with his grandparents.  We started a journal so he and his grandmother
could write down what they did each day.  Each time we talked about it
he was quiet and thoughtful, but didn't resist the idea or protest.  I
left yesterday and when he woke up from his nap and I was not there he
cried a little, asked where I was, but had a fun afternoon with my
parents.

So now our question how much and in what form we should communicate
with him while he is there.  Specifically, do you think it is a good
idea to speak on the phone every day with him, perhaps to call via skype
so that he can see us as well?  On the one hand, and based on
experience when one of us (my husband or me) has been traveling, it
does make him sad to see us on the computer and he says things like
"mama should come out of the computer", and cries afterwards.  On the
phone he also says things like "you should come here" or "I want to go
home and be with Dada now".   On the other hand, we can't just not talk
to him for 12 days.

Do you have any advice on what we should do, how to keep in touch
without making him upset every day?  Or is there no way to avoid his
being upset, but it is still important for him to hear our voices every
day?"

Two weeks is a looooooong time for a 2-year-old, so there's no way you can not talk to him during that time. Especially because he's just coming out of a big separation anxiety stage (the one that hits some kids like a ton of bricks right around age 2, accompanied by another sleep regression from around 24-27 months) and needs reassurance that his parents are still there.

He's still too little to really understand why he's there and you're not, or why you're at home and he's not, or the concept of "vacation." (I, on the other hand, would kill to spend two weeks at your parents' house outside of the city.) He is having fun with your parents, but is probably still perplexed and maybe even worried about where you are and when he'll see you again. So yes, even if it upsets him, you need to talk to him every day.

I think that since he's so young, it might be helpful if you could video Skype so he can see you. It will also probably help if there's an activity for the call so it's not just him getting upset and you trying not to get him upset. Reading books to him over Skype (with a copy that one of your parents holds for him there and you reading from a copy at home) might be an activity he enjoys, or singing songs with him. You also might make a countdown calendar of some sort and count down another day with him on the phone. (Making construction paper links in a chain is a classic, so he can rip off another link each day.)

I'm betting that your parents are able to distract him so that he doesn't stay upset for long after the call. (It's the classic "kid cries when you leave but if you hide quietly on the other side of the door you hear laughter in 3 minutes" scenario.) But it might help you if one of your parents could snap a pic of him happy and send it to you after you talk so you know he's not upset all the time.

This is a challenging situation, for sure, because he needs to hear from you even if it makes him sad in the short term.

Has anyone else been in a similar situation of being separated from such a young toddler? How did you stay connected while not making your child more upset about the separation?

31 thoughts on “Q&A: how to communicate with toddler when we are apart for two weeks”

  1. One thing we learned was to never call close to bedtime. Call in the morning, or right after a nap… that will give him plenty of time to settle down before he goes to bed. Otherwise you may be setting your parents up for a very rough night. Also, if you can arrange something fun for after the call for a fast distraction (sprinkler time! bath! sandbox! finger paints!), that will help. For us, my mom asking our son to come help vacuum or sweep the kitchen floor had him excited to end the call rather than upset that we weren’t there… he loves to do those things.

  2. I’ve never been in a situation where both my husband and I have been away (ok, I’ve never gone anywhere. pfft) but my husband has semi-frequent business trips. My kids are a little older now, but Skype has been really helpful. The 5 year old isn’t into phones, and the 3 year old wants to be with daddy. He, also, doesn’t really understand that Daddy isn’t in the room when he’s on skype. he gets this better than a 2 year old, but there’s still a disconnect. Once, my husband ate an ice cream cone on screen and didn’t anticipate that the little guy wouldn’t understand that he couldn’t share. (of course, we didn’t happen to have any ice cream at home. that wasn’t fun).Anyway, what helps the little guy is to feel like daddy is still around even though he’s not, and since he doesn’t get that skype isn’t really being around, we spent a lot of time with daddy on skype but not interacting with us. He’d just do his work while we could see him on the webcam, and the kids could ask him a question if one came up. Meanwhile, we’d go about our business. Weird, to have my husband hanging out on the webcam, but it totally helped the 3 year old, particularly at bedtime. He liked going to his room knowing that daddy was still “there.” Weird.
    Of course, we went to see my parents during the last business trip and for the 4 days we were in Ohio, didn’t skype at all. The kids basically had no contact with him because they aren’t into the phone. It was wonderful wonderful.
    Less contact is better, but if you have to have contact, be open to doing weird stuff like writing your dissertation while on a webcam.

  3. Eh. Every kid is different, but my 28 month old has spent a week with the grandparents several times and we have had no problems. I call once a day and he’s says, “hi mama, I playing” and then drops the phone and runs away to chase the dog. I always worry he’ll be upset and he just never is.

  4. I work in a field where we deal with this issue a lot (I’m a therapist who works with divorcing families). First, the child should have as much contact with the parents as he wants to have. So, if your son asks to call 3 times a day, it is generally a good idea to allow him to do that. As Moxie suggested, try to develop some kind of daily ritual with him, like reading a story over Skype.I also think distraction can be really effective for toddlers, but it is important not to be dismissive. If you son says he misses mommy, perhaps grandparents could talk to him about that for awhile (ie. “I understand that you miss mommy), and then offer something fun to do. The flip-side of this I often see is adults telling kids, “You’re fine” and ignoring their feelings. But, this family sounds very sensitive to this little guy so that is wonderful!
    And, just as an aside, Kathrine is having a baby in 6 weeks and doing a dissertation?? Wow – that is extraordinary. Good luck.

  5. I’m interested to hear responses to this. On July 20, I’m going overseas on a 15 day work trip where I am going to be essentially off-grid most of the time. Luckily, my husband will be home with The Boy (32mos), but he’s really attached to me. We’ve been talking about the trip periodically, framing it as “adventure w/Papa” and highlighting fun stuff (visit from g/ma, zoo, more daycare (which he loves)) and he’s pretty chill so far.I’m going to try and make a few videos for him. And maybe leave a calendar, but I’m not sure he’ll get that concept. I think I’ll make a map somehow – he’s into maps.
    With the time difference (14 hrs) and the poor-to-no connectivity, I’m just not sure Skyping will be an option more than a few times during the trip.
    I’ve been delaying this trip for several years, and it just has to happen now unfortunately. I’d love to hear reassuring stories from others.
    My hubby has ALWAYS been really reluctant to comfort (or even distract) The Boy when he’s upset by any given departure on my part. Which makes me sad, of course. I’m going to have to chat him up about distraction techniques for the really rough ones. Grrrr.

  6. I think less contact might be better – maybe just one or two phone or video calls unless he (the kid) asks for more. My 27 month old hasn’t been away for 2 weeks, but she has gone with Grandma for 4 days and had no problems with that. We just spoke on the phone once, and she seemed pleased to talk to Mom but that was it.Then again, it probably depends on the kid. Mine idolizes her maternal grandmother – I think we could tell her that she was going to stay with Grandma forever, and she’d happily wave goodbye and good riddance to us! (exaggerating here, but you know what I mean)

  7. My situation is a bit different from the rest. I had repeated hospitalizations (cancer), starting before my daughter turned two years old and culminating in one long (month long) stay,just after her third birthday. The last stay was the hardest, both for length and because she could not come and visit at all (hospital policy and because of the ward I was on with transplant cases and those with lowered immune systems).On shorter hospital trips, we would just frame it as fun with Nana or Grandma or Papa or whoever she was with. She would often come and have a short visit (sorry, nor relavant to original poster).
    For the longer stay away, my husband pulled double duty to be with both her and with me. He was our main line of communication. They talked about me over dinner, she drew me pictures that he brought to me, I wrote her short notes that he or my mom could read to her. We did Skype briefly, but not until the end because I was so filled with tubes and lines and was so sick that I worried that it would make her more, instead of less, worried about me (which she already was).
    Bottom line, even though the reunion was a bit tricky, I saw first-hand how resilient kids are. We are just as bonded as ever, it just took some time to get back in the swing of things.

  8. The normal in our house is a travelling, out of town Daddy every Mon-Thurs. Our kids are almost 3 and 18 months. Things that work for us are 1)If either kid asks for or seems to talk about Daddy a lot we get out pictures to look at and make an art project to give to him when he gets home and 2) show the kids where we are on the map and show them where Daddy is.We don’t talk on the phone because neither kid gets the phone thing and webcam just seems to confuse the kids. Soon we plan to have Daddy read books on tape and play them at bedtime.

  9. I had to be away from mine for 10 days at that age and so I made copies of a few pictures of us together so he could look at them when he missed me, called every morning, and made a recording of me reading several of his favorite books on a little digital recorder so I could still “read” him his bedtime books and he could listen to it whenever he wanted.

  10. Whew, Moxie, just in time as usual! We’re not going to be apart from our toddler, but he’s 26 months old and just hit a serious “mommy phase” connected with a sleep regression! (He’s started waking up at 5 am) We had no idea what was going on, and now I do! So, thanks!!!We’re also a traveling family; my husband was away from my son a lot from 19 -24 months (he only came home every other weekend) and he handled it really well. Didn’t have any interest in the phone or skype or pictures. Near the end he started getting much more anxious about his daddy coming and going, and finally started freaking out whenever he saw daddy pack the car. The last time, he climbed into his car seat and refused to come out because he was so afraid of being left behind! But of course I was with him the whole time, so I’m sure that’s partially why it was relatively easy on him.
    In my experience, such separations usually go better than we think they will. Parents are often more anxious than the toddlers.

  11. My husband is away at Boy Scout camp this week, with the 16 year old. I’m home with the 7 year old and 2 1/2 year old (El). El is really missing him a lot. Especially in down-times (on the way to school, working on going to sleep, etc.) He’s really hard to get in touch with right now, so we’ve been leaving voicemails and texting phone pictures of what we’ve been up to. I usually have to walk her through the voicemail (Say Hi Daddy (Hi Daddy) Say, I miss you Daddy (I miss you Daddy) Say, See you in a few days! (See you in a few days!) and then get the phone back )When my husband travels for work, we usually call on the drive to daycare to say good morning – we leave at a pretty predictable time, so sometimes that’s when he calls us too.
    This has been the longest that he’s been hard to reach though, so it’s a challenge. It helped that we went away for half the week having our own adventure, but the transition back to our regular house made us all kind of sad. Getting back to our regular routine (the Dad on Travel version of it) was OK.

  12. What @Rachel said about being away from her 28-month old: “I call once a day and he’s says, “hi mama, I playing” and then drops the phone and runs away to chase the dog. I always worry he’ll be upset and he just never is.”That was our EXACT experience when DH and I went away from DS, and left him at our house with his grandma for 4 days, when he was 28 mos. It was not a problem at all, though I had expected a nightmare, it really was a dream. My mom reminded DS, “Mama and Daddy went on an airplane and they will come back on the airplane on Sunday,” which he repeated back to her. That seemed to comfort him and stave off any separation meltdowns.

  13. Kids are so different. My daughter (34 months) has been skyping since birth, so she sort of gets it. She gets it so much that if she’s watching a youtube video of someone she knows, she gets mad that they are ignoring her.My husband travels 2-3 days a week and I judge my daughter’s mood before we skype/call. If she’s already cranky, we don’t do it. If it’s too close to bedtime, we usually skip it.
    When they do talk, the best ones are when they do an activity like reading a book. Last night they played some made up version of hide-n-seek and they both had a blast. I couldn’t watch b/c Daddy was walking around the hotel room with his camera “looking” for Etta and making me dizzy!
    I’ll probably be heading to Europe for 2 weeks next summer for work. The kids will be almost 1.5 and 3.5. I’m already worrying!

  14. We recently left our three (2, 4, 6) with Grandma and Grandpa at our house while we went on a business/vacation trip to Europe for 10 days. I think it helped to call California every other day at dinner time for us/breakfast for them. The kids didn’t really want to talk with us (the 2yo had the longest conversation, about 3 sentences), since they were making plans for the day (beach, museum, etc.) with Grandma and Grandpa.I think the calls were mostly to reassure Grandma who is no longer used to kid-wrangling.

  15. Just got back from my first trip away from my 25 month old. It went much better than I anticipated. And DS apparently only got sad on the 2nd morning I was gone.What seemed to help DS the most was a book (just printed on regular paper from the computer, stapled, and then packing tape over the staples for safety) I made for him that told him what was going to happen for the days I was away. I had pictures of where I was going (Vegas) and how I was going (plane), what he would do while I was gone (the normal routine as it was during the week) and the fact that his Grannie was going to visit while I was gone. I tried to inject as many photos of DS & myself, as well as other familiar things & places, as I could. And the text had a lot of repetition like you would find in other books for his age group.
    We started reading it a few days before I left. And apparently he picked it up to read with my Mum a fair amount while we were gone.
    DS always finds a lot of comfort in the routines as well as being told what is happening before (even if just before) it occurs.
    We weren’t sure about phone calls or skyping. We skype with my parents, so it’s somewhat familiar with him. In the end, skype was too difficult to coordinate due to the time & schedule differences. But I called once per day (even before bed) and he apparently really liked it.
    One thing I did try as well that didn’t work was leaving an article of my clothing behind in case he wanted my smell around. I left my t-shirt in his crib and apparently on the first night he chucked it at DH as if to say ‘What the heck is THIS?!’
    Now if only I had paid as much attention to my needs (ahem, pumping promptly following my flight) during the trip, I wouldn’t have ended up with mastitis after I returned home. Sorry. Hijack. Can you tell I’m annoyed/bitter/pissed?

  16. Thanks for this post and all of the comments. We’ll be leaving our 23 month old twins at home with the grandmas while we’re out of the country for 10 days. They’ve been apart from us before, but only like 3-4 days. And they were too little to really get what was going on.They skype with family every other day it seems, so I’m hoping that will work (if we can figure out how to make it happen from our end). I’m anxious to see how other people managed things.

  17. I did exactly what “the milliner” did in making a book for my young children when I went out of town for work for a week. I put homemade pages together with pictures and drawings of what I would be doing everyday and with little notes about how I was thinking of them. When I was gone, my kids asked to have the book read to them many times and would thumb through it on their own on occasion. In addition, I created a chain link out of construction paper and each day I was gone I had my husband remove one of the links with them– representing how many days left there were until my return. I think that toddlers do best with these types of concrete manifestations of time as they most definitely don’t understand time verbally. I also called them and was put on speaker phone once or twice a day. I am generally of the camp that I don’t want my kids to think that I disappeared off the face of the earth however well-adjusted they seem without my presence.

  18. I didn’t read the comments, so sorry if this is a repeat. My husband has traveled extensively (up to 4 nights per week for weeks on end) since our younger daughter was about 9 months old. I really found that phone calls didn’t work – our older daughter, who was almost 5 when the traveling started, would tell me that her arm was too tired to hold the phone.Video chats, on the other hand, are great. I set up my laptop each night so he could talk to them while they ate dinner and that seemed to work out nicely for everyone. I think because they could see his face, they were more inclined to talk.
    We use gmail video chat, for what it’s worth.

  19. My husband and I take frequent trips without our kids (and husband travels for work Tues-Thurs every week) and we find Skype to be awesome. What we do when Daddy is gone is bring the computer to the dinner table and Daddy “has dinner” with the kids. He sees what they’re eating, hears about their day, etc. It’s almost like eating together as a family.The longest we’ve been away was 12 days when my son was 3 and my daughter was 1. She didn’t really understand Skype, but she loved seeing us, and my son really enjoyed it.
    If we can’t Skype, I call them in the morning after we’re all awake for the day and at night before they go to bed. They can also call me anytime they want.
    I think he’ll have a ton of fun with the g-parents. And you should really think about sending him for a weekend (or longer) once the baby is here. You’ll really need the break then and it’s nice to get some one-on-one time with the baby, too!

  20. I have a totally different perspective. We have a split custody situation with my stepson who is almost two that has been in place since he was an infant. We see him every three weeks on average for about three days, and he “lives” about three hours away from us.This has been the situation since birth, and while it sucks for countless number of reasons, the impact on the little one doesn’t seem to be one of them (for now). We’ve never had any “adjustment” periods when he arrives, he’s very attached to both of us (especially his Daddy), and we’ve experienced very little separation anxiety when he gets dropped off back with his mother. He’s very much a “love the one you’re with” kid, as it turns out.
    About six months ago, he started acting out a bit when it was “time” for him to go back to his mother’s house, and we could not figure out how he knew (no obvious packing things, etc….). But he did, so taking some advice from the postings here, I started talking to him about what was happening. (Today is the day you go back to your other house… We love you and had a wonderful time… We are excited for the next time you come here…). The other thing I did was to get little stickers online that had his face on them, and put those on the calendar on the days he’d be with us again. So then before he leaves, I tell him what today is (with his picture) and then we count the number of days until there’s another picture of him, and usually talk about how on each day without a sticker, we (still) love him.
    It’s honestly worked out a lot better than I could have ever imagined. We don’t skype or talk to him on the phone when he’s with his mother – we honestly have no contact with him inbetween our visits. I always sort of assumed that would change as he got older, but perhaps that’s something we can work on now, since I’m sure he would enjoy it (as opposed to being upset by it). His mother likely wouldn’t allow that, but that’s another issue….

  21. My husband and I went to Europe for a week when my daughter was two and a half, and she stayed with grandparents. We skyped once, and would have skyped more often, but it was hard to get a connection and the reports we got were that she was completely fine. Grandma didn’t even have to draw on her tote bag of little presents that she brought to distract/cheer up. We understand she had a wonderful time and didn’t seem to miss at all while we were gone, but she was definitely unusually clingy and prone to meltdowns for a couple weeks when we got back.

  22. I was deployed for 4 months when Little Son was 2 1/2. Skype worked best for us. He didn’t have an idea of me when talking on the telephone; I was too abstract. But we had significantly fewer anxiety and behavior issues on days we skyped then days we didn’t. Hope it helps.

  23. Oh, we did have several books that I read on video. They had the book to follow along, and Dad let them watch whenever they wanted to do so. Apparently, it was popular with Big (7) and Little Son which surprised me. We did a calendar with Big Son which worked well in helping him understand the time. Another good idea to conceptualize time is to have small dollar store toys or candy (skittles in our house) where they ca see them. 14 treats for 14 days, that kind of thing. Each day the kid gets a treat, and can visually see the pile get smaller.

  24. we just left our 2 kids with grandma for a week – AWESOME!!!!i told my 4.5yr old that she could call when ever she felt like it and of the 2 times she actually did call grandma asked our 2.5 yr old son if he wanted to talk and he just said no.
    the grands will take care/spoil/indulge the kid enough that you will be a kind of nice memory i think. to call everyday seems like a lot maybe break it up so your kid can just be with the grands and not miss you so much every time he sees you?
    enjoy the break!

  25. I just came back from a 12 day trip away from my 2.5 year old and my 5.5 year old. Skype with video every day was a big help. The few days I had the world’s worst internet connection and we did phone only were much harder on the boys.I also made them a little good night message for each night I was away (construction paper hearts with a kiss and good night on them) which they really liked. My husband gave them one each night.
    I also sent them post cards from my trip addressed personally to them.

  26. I just wrote Moxie a long email about this very issue – and somehow missed this post, doh! (Am I still allowed to be in a brain fog long past the baby stage? I say Yes.)I’ll be away from my 19 month old and 3 year old for 12 days – my husband will be at home with them full-time, and my MIL will be visiting. While I’m confident the 3 year old will cope, I’m stressing about the 19 month old, who is smack in the middle of a massive separation-anxiety-only-mama-will-do phase.
    After much angsting, I’m trying to foster the vaguely zen attitude that what will be will be, and I can only set up support systems/photos/video calls/visual aids etc and hope for the best.
    The bigger issue I’m struggling with is the GUILT, not helped by a handful of family/friends who are:
    a) shocked that I’ll be away for so long (I’m going to visit my aging parents overseas, a shorter trip isn’t economical);
    b) appalled that I’m not taking the kids (too expensive to take the older one, and not practical to take the younger one – a 14 hour flight on my lap? not happening);
    c) looking askance at the fact that this is largely a pleasure trip – business absences are okay (my husband’s travelled for work) but I suspect they think a holiday is indulgent and not appropriately maternal behaviour;
    d) making me feel that I’m going to do irreparable damage to my currently-very-attached 19 month old. (And now I’m worried that I will too.)
    Keep the great ideas coming – and any words of encouragement/guilt alleviation are welcome.

  27. We left our son at age 2.5 with the granddparents for about two weeks (and have left him before when he was younger). I think I might have spoken to him by phone once. When I asked to another time, my mom thought it was better for him not to hear from me. I don’t think he can really process the distance concept. While we’re away, he’s focused on his immediate surroundings and having a great time. And when we’re back, we’re back. Enjoy your time away. I’ve left my toddler several times for 1-3 weeks and we have a wonderful bond. I don’t think there is any lasting effect, as long as he is being lovingly cared for in your absence.

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