How long should parents be away from their children?
Video chat can be part of a short-term solution, but cannot replace real-life communication, say psychologists
Jennifer Ryan with her husband and son who was not really big on Japan
‘Can we afford this?” asked my husband, as the cursor hovered over the “okay”’ button on the airline’s website.
“How the hell do I know?” was my less than helpful reply.
The trip we were planning was our honeymoon, a not so hasty six months after our relatively low-key city wedding. The not very low-key destination was Japan and I had insisted on making it an ambitious three-week affair, pontificating from my high-horse about how much we deserved it, no, we needed it, how important it was for “us”, now a married couple of grown-ups, to spend some time together and to have an adventure while we were at it.
Leaving our three-year-old son behind with my sister, some 9,579km away, would be grand and besides, we could video chat every day. All would be fine, I told myself.
As the departure date drew near however, the doubt began to creep in. How would our son cope with the separation? We had been apart for nights and weekends in the past, but three weeks is a long time by anyone’s standards. Were we asking too much of him?
I also had serious qualms about relying on video chatting to maintain a sense of closeness with him and about making technology such a central part of his daily life in our absence.
“Video messaging or calling is helpful as a way of him holding you both in mind and knowing he is held in mind by you,” psychotherapist and attachment specialist Joanna Fortune told The Irish Times.
“Some young children struggle with the disembodied voice over a phone call, they can hear you but not see or touch you, and that can be hard for them. Video calling has changed that. They see you and they hear you and this makes you more real,” she says.
Peadar Maxwell is a Wexford-based psychologist who works in child and family psychology. He says because children get bored very easily on the telephone, seeing their parent on Skype or FaceTime could help to make separation easier.
A recent study in Canada recommended keeping toddlers away from electronic devices because excessive usage could delay communication development. Separately, a British study has shown that exposure to electronic screens impacts negatively on babies’ sleep. With such things in mind, it is important to think carefully about how much technology you are happy to expose your child to, says Maxwell.
“You want your child to learn how to navigate their world without smart technology, getting used to paper print, creative, tactile toys and face-to-face interaction with others, before they become preoccupied with swiping technology and being fixated on a screen.
“But there’s no use in pretending that technology doesn’t exist either. Very young children should be well supervised with technology and it should be used for its purpose only and not as a toy or for entertainment. So if you use a smart device to keep in contact with a young child, have whoever is minding them put the device away after the video call,” he says.
For lots of families, screens on tablets, smartphones and computers, are an integral part of life. Babies meet their grandparents over Skype for the first time and children develop relationships with extended family members in far-flung parts of the world through the internet.
In these instances technology is not just a source of passive entertainment and Joanna Fortune says it is important to help young children make that distinction.
“Ask specific questions about that day’s events so that they know that you are different from watching Peppa Pig
“Of course many young children spend a lot of time watching screens and cartoons and they can see you as part of that ‘entertainment’ world, so it is very important that you stay aware of what is happening in their day-to-day world.
“Ask specific questions about that day’s events so that they know that you are different from watching Peppa Pig or something else. Singing a familiar nursery rhyme or a lullaby to them, or reading them a story, is also a nice thing to integrate,” she says.
Video chatting with your child will never be as positive as in-real-life communication, nor should it be seen as a replacement in the long term, says Fortune. It can be effective as a short-term measure to get through a set period of separation, but parents should be aware of the drawbacks.
“It can confuse them and their age and developmental stage is particularly pertinent around managing this. You may experience developmental regression upon return, which could take a week or so to kick in and should dissipate within a couple of weeks,” she says.
This was something that we had been warned about by fellow parents before we left for Japan, that our son would “punish” us for leaving him when we got back from our holiday.
Peadar Maxwell says that while parents should make time for each other, long periods of separation from very young children should be limited. When it is unavoidable however, there are some practical steps that can be taken to help minimise the emotional impact on your child.
“Having close family who your child is very familiar and comfortable with mind them and the supervised use of technology to stay in contact,” is good he said.
“Another idea is to give your child a transitional object, something for them to mind while you are away. This could be a personal item such as a T-shirt or a photo for them to have and think of you,” he says.
Joanna Fortune agrees that good planning is vital, as is knowing what is right for your particular child.
"You are the expert on your child and you know what he can handle. Trust your own parental instincts and don’t worry about what the internet experts would or wouldn’t do.”
I need not have worried so much, it turns out. Our son was with my sister who moved into our house and slotted into his daily routine for three weeks – the best wedding gift anyone could have given us.
We spoke to him every morning on WhatsApp video chat and he marked off the days to our return on a calendar, which helped him get to grips with the passage of time.
We did not get off totally scot-free though. A few weeks later, as my husband and I reminisced about our holiday in what we thought was out of earshot, I expressed a desire to return to Japan.
“You’re never going back to Japan!” yelled the almost four-year-old from the other room.