My daughter recently went on an exchange trip with her teachers and classmates. She was out of the country for 10 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 hugged and kissed us goodbye, 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 you follow to ready themselves for the long separation?
1. Start small and build
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 had her start on a flat surface and, if you were like me, it was grass and training wheels.
I never would have considered sending my daughter out of the country when she was 8 or 9, but I did send her away to overnight camps, so that she could get used to being apart from her loved ones. She was away longer each consecutive year; her confidence and independence grew. In turn, I learned to let go a little more each time.
2. Admit and face fears
Your child absorbs your fears, just like she absorbs your values and sense of humor. What are you afraid of? Yes, things can happen; however, remember that far more good things happen than bad. Fear can paralyze someone from trying.
Growth comes from challenges. How will she 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.
3. Teach safety and looking out for others
Safety is a key issue with all parents. 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 other situations that might come up. Kids would be together in close contact for a long period of time and become edgy. There might be issues with privacy or a friend who was homesick.
4. Prepare your child to adapt to new surroundings and the unexpected
Talk to your child about what to expect. A well-prepared child has knowledge and options to adapt if necessary. For example, my daughter was traveling where sanitation could be a problem and because of that, food safety was a concern. Caution about what she ate and drank was paramount; eating and drinking like the locals would most likely make her sick.
She would have to make the decisions about what she ate and drank. We researched the common types of food offered and how they were prepared. Fresh and unpeeled vegetables were not going to be an option unless she was assured that they were washed with purified water. Being aware can help kids act on their toes when they're in the thick of a new, uncertain situation.