I have joint custody of my 7-year-old. This means she lives with us every other week—and the other weeks, she lives with her dad and stepmom.
The weeks when she’s not with us are never easy for anyone in our family, but she struggles most of all. In the days before the transition between homes, she becomes so anxious that she has trouble sleeping and eating.
To make it easier on her, we started a tradition of me and her little sister Bailey visiting her at school for lunch during those other weeks. We started with one lunch date every other week, but midway through this last school year she asked me to come every day. That wasn’t possible every week, but I tried my darnedest to make it happen.
Because those daily lunch dates helped all three of us cope with being apart for a week at a time.
But Here’s the Problem
Because I work from home, I offered to keep my oldest daughter at home with me and Bailey (and now her newborn sister Charlie) during the day on those other weeks this summer. Her dad and stepmom declined. Instead, they arranged for her to spend her time in child care and a couple summer camps.
During those other weeks, my daughter hasn’t been able to see me or her sisters.
Every night during those weeks, Bailey cries out for her sister in her sleep. Every morning, the first thing she says after waking up is a one-word question: Her sister’s name.
I shake my head and say, “No. We can’t see her today.”
My Eureka Moment
I know I’m not alone.
Parents who deal with joint custody. Parents who travel frequently for work, especially to different time zones. Military parents. Parents taking their first vacation without the kids. Or even just parents struggling while their kids are away at summer camp, their grandparents’ house, or their first overnight sleepover.
We miss our kids terribly.
But here’s the kicker—we’re grown adults. We’ve had 20, 30, 40 years to learn how to cope with these big emotions.
Our kids? Not so much.
And in a lot of these situations, you can’t always pick up a phone and call your kid.
Before summer hit, I researched advice for what to do when you’re missing your kids.
I found a few useful tidbits, but definitely no silver bullet.
And then I stumbled on this scientifically proven tip for dealing with emotional stress: write your worries down.
But Would It Work?
My child explained the hardest time away from me is when she’s trying to fall asleep at night. Sometimes, she cries herself to sleep.
So I made a DIY journal using a cereal box for the cover and plain paper inside—just enough paper to last one week—and stapled it together like a book.
That way, the journal is small enough to fit under her pillow. And if her DIY diary gets lost in the shuffle between houses? No worries—we’ll just make another one.
At bedtime, she pulls out her journal and writes down what’s on her mind.
The first Monday after she started journaling, I wasn’t sure what to expect when she came back home.
But after we hugged, she rummaged in her backpack and quietly handed over her journal.
I flipped through it while she watched me.
Most nights, she wrote a simple “I miss you, Mommy.” Other nights, she drew a picture of a sad face. A couple nights, the sad face had tears running down the cheeks.
I got to the end of the notebook, and my throat felt tight.
I looked up at her. “Did it help to write down how you were feeling?”
She nodded, her face serious.
“Can I write you back in this?” I asked.
Her face relaxed, just a little. She nodded again.
How to Stay Connected to Your Kids—From Separation Anxiety to Business Travel
This parenting trick will help your child feel connected and less stressed when you’re away from each other. Whether your child experiences separation anxiety when you leave for a date night or struggles when you’re away for business travel, your child will feel better and less anxious after getting his worries down on paper.
Here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind:
- Any notebook will do. I used plain white paper, a cereal box, and staples to make a DIY notebook. Ready-made notebooks† would work great, too. (Although the Tom Riddle diary from Harry Potter might be a little creepy—I’d skip that one.)
- This works for pre-writers. If your child can’t write independently yet, encourage him to draw pictures to represent his feelings and thoughts. As another option, your child can use an app like Super Notes to record what he’s feeling anxious about.
- Take it one step further. Get two journals for when you’re away from your kid—one for your kid to write in, and one for you to write notes to your kid while you’re away.
- Give your kid a heads up. In situations of shared custody, make sure your child understands that it’s possible her other parent could find the journal and read it—with or without asking her first. If she’s uncomfortable with the idea of that, encourage her to talk to her other parent and ask for privacy.
- This alternative might work better. If the thought of writing about his feelings is too overwhelming to your child, another option is for you to write daily notes your child can open when you’re away. I did this when I was traveling one week and wouldn’t be able to visit my daughter for lunch at school. I wrote one note for every day I’d be gone, labeled the envelopes with the days of the week, and gave the whole stack to my daughter to keep in her desk at school. That way, she could open one note each day at lunch. The notes were nothing special—I just counted down the days until we’d see each other and included corny kid-friendly jokes. But the notes let her know I was thinking of her every day.
- This works when you’re together. When you and your child are back together, consider writing responses to her journal entries. This helps her feel heard and validates her emotions. If you enjoy this back-and-forth process, you can also try a mommy-and-me journal (or daddy-and-me) for the times when you are together.
Before you go, get my FREE cheat sheet: 75 Positive Phrases Every Child Needs to Hear
How do you help your child cope with missing you? Share your tip in a comment below!