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Separation Anxiety: My husband's away for 6 months; how will our 2-year-old cope?

My husband and our two-year-old son are best buddies. I never thought this would be a problem – until I found out that my husband might have to go to another province (we live in Canada) for six months for career training. It’s going to be hard enough for me, but at least I understand that he’s doing it for us, and he’s coming back. The baby that will be arriving shortly before he leaves won’t know the difference, but Daddy’s Little Buddy sure will, and he’s not quite able to understand if we try to explain things to him. Can you give us any advice on making the transition easier on all of us, and on what to do with a very broken-hearted little boy? – Six Months Single

Dear Single,

While this phase will definitely have its stresses, it doesn’t have to be a huge heartbreak. Six months is a long time. To you. But to a toddler this is all very abstract. The fact that your son is too young to really understand the concept of TIME may actually work in your favor. He’ll certainly miss his dad, but he won’t be ticking off the hours until his return. You and your husband are likely to be more upset, because you actually know what six months means.

The bond between your son and husband may seem like a curse as well as a blessing right now, but the connection they have is a very good thing. It will sustain them when he’s gone, and it will serve them well when your husband gets back. Your son has a complete trust in your husband and that will go a long way to making this time less painful.

But it’ll probably be really hard – mostly, we’re guessing, on you! There are definitely some things you can think about to help ease the transition.

Here are a few:

The new baby will throw a spanner in the works – your older son will be losing a lot of consistency at once. Anything you can do to build in some sustainable structure will help carry him through the rocky period. It’ll be hard, but you’ll get through it. At least let your standards of housecleaning drop a few notches. (And ask anyone who comes over to bring a loaf of bread and do a load of laundry.)

Try to be as available as possible to your eldest while your husband’s gone. This isn’t always realistic with a new baby around, but having another caregiver for the infant some of the time can help. You can also try to include your older son when you have to tend to the baby. It sounds hectic and it often is, but encouraging your older boy to be part of the action can help reduce replacement anxiety.

Are there relatives or friends you could enlist as a transitional buddy during your husband’s absence? Hiring a sitter or mother’s helper whose main job is to have fun with him could be another option. If you can work it out, start before your husband leaves to help ease the flow.

Kids have different ways of dealing with separation. Some like to talk about it. Others get sadder when the subject is raised. Likewise, some kids respond well to contact with the person they’re missing, and others don’t. You can try video chat (or phone, though your son might be on the young side to connect with a voice). Be aware that for some kids, seeing or hearing a loved one without being able to be with the person can be more upsetting than reassuring. Writing letters and sending pictures is another option. You can also keep daddy’s presence alive around the house: Say goodnight to a picture of daddy or daddy’s desk or daddy’s chair or whatever it is every night. And keep your husband in the loop: “You like toast? Your daddy likes toast too!”

Pay close attention to your son’s responses, and try not to project what you think he might be feeling. He may not be as sad as you think, but if he gets the sense that you think he is, it might actually exacerbate his feelings. As much as you can, try to stay positive and confident about the situation. Your child will take a lot of cues from you. It might help you to think about all the things that aren’t changing: his territory, his daily environment, the fact that you’re still there. These things are a big deal to a little kid. He’s still waking up in his bed and eating bananas in his car seat. And remember, this separation might be tough in the short term, but he’ll be fine.

Have a question? Email beingpregnant@babble.com

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