My 12-year-old daughter recently went on an exchange trip with her teachers and classmates. She was out of the country for ten days without her dad, her siblings, or me. She did great. In fact, she was so excited that her bag was packed a full week before her trip. As she calmly hugged and kissed us good-bye, I took time to reflect on how she arrived in that place of calm confidence.
How do parents prepare and toughen up their kids for extended time away from them? What steps can parents follow to ready themselves for a long separation?
Start small and build from there.
Encourage your child to explore and challenge herself. Think of when your child learned to ride a bike – you didn’t have her start on a hill. You likely had her start on a flat surface and, if you were like me, it was on grass and with training wheels. I never would have considered sending my daughter out of the country when she was eight or nine, but I did send her away to overnight camps so that she could get used to being apart. She was away longer each consecutive year, and her confidence and independence grew. In turn, I learned to let go a little more each time.
Admit and face your fears.
What are you afraid of? Your child absorbs your fears, just like she absorbs your values and sense of humor. Fear can paralyze someone from trying; growth comes from challenges. How will your child test herself and gain confidence in her abilities if she is fearful or not able to overcome real or perceived obstacles? Try to model confidence and a positive outlook when you face challenges. Your child will likely do the same.
Teach your child safety and to look out for others.
Safety is a key issue with all parents. We begin teaching safety as soon as our children join us. I didn’t put my child on a plane and say, “See you later.” I prepared her through the years on matters like staying with her group, always having a buddy, no talking to strangers, being aware of her surroundings, washing her hands, looking both ways before she crossed the street – you get the idea. We talked about situations that might come up on her trip: kids in close contact for a long period of time may become edgy, there might be issues with privacy, or a friend may become homesick.
Prepare your child to adapt to new surroundings and to the unexpected.
Talk to your child about what to expect. A well-prepared child has knowledge and options to adapt when necessary. For example, my daughter was traveling where sanitation could be a problem and so food safety was a concern. Caution about what she ate and drank would be paramount, and she would have to make those decisions. Eating and drinking like the locals would most likely make her sick. We researched the common types of food offered and how they were prepared. Uncooked fresh vegetables were not going to be an option unless she was assured that they were washed with purified water. We role-played – an important reinforcement for my salad-loving girl, since I wouldn’t be there to remind her. We also visited and ate at restaurants that had similar foods on their menus; this exposed her palate and helped her discover what she might enjoy on her trip.
Try something new.
Doing something for the first time can be scary. It can also be fun, exciting and empowering. Show your child how to venture out and explore something new by modeling this yourself, like trying a new food. Watching you try, explore and make new discoveries instills courage in your child to do the same. Kids feel a sense of accomplishment when they have tried something new, whether they liked it or liked not. They grow from the exposure and experience. My daughter is proud that she traveled and experienced a different culture without her family. She’s ready to travel to a new destination again.
One of the many facets of our job as parents is teaching our children skill sets needed to navigate their worlds, providing them with a basis for building the confidence and resilience they will require as adults. This takes time, and your guidance and encouragement will help make it happen.