Development FAQ: 12-18 months – Behaviour

My daughter of 14mths finds it difficult to cope with my husband’s repeated absences and reappearances due to work.

My husband works abroad and is away from home for a week / 2 weeks at a time. When he goes, we explain that he is working but will be back. We talk to my 14mth old daughter about her “daddy” daily in a very relaxed way taking care not to make a big deal about his absence and also speak on the phone regularly. We try and make this very matter of fact and not make a big deal about his going. For the first couple of days after he leaves, my daughter is very “clingy” with me – but I try to be gently reassuring and we continue in our routines and soon she settles down. However, on my husbands return home, our normally settled little girl becomes very overwrought. For the first few days she clings to her daddy and gets extremely upset when he leaves the room / goes out to the office etc. We try very hard to be relaxed about this, we are matter of fact about when he has to go out and that he will return and does. We have also noticed that when my husband comes home my daughter “performs” showing him all her toys, her books, dancing, photos etc – it appears to be almost a “desperate” attempt to get him to stay. We have tried giving him something of my daughter’s ( a toy etc) to take with him explaining that he will bring it back soon – so she feels he will have to return.

As my husband has to work away we do need to get to a situation where my daughter can deal with this without becoming extremely upset and understands that he will come back when he goes away. Any advice would be very welcome as it is so upsetting to see her get so distraught.

Your daughter is at the age where separation anxiety can be quite strong. Although it is distressing to see that she is so upset it does mean that she has formed a strong bond with her father despite his repeated absence. This phase will pass as she develops her reasoning and the distress she displays at present should disappear.

A few months ago your daughter probably did not show such distress when your husband came home and then had to go out again. This is because, for her at that age, once out of sight her father was also out of her mind. By the age of one year a baby’s reasoning has developed so she can understand that, although she cannot see someone, she knows they do still exist. Her clinginess to you when her father first goes away is very understandable. She reasons that if Daddy can go away then so might Mummy. By reassuring her in the way you do she soon realizes that this is not going to happen. Because your daughter has such a strong bond with her Daddy she is delighted when he returns. But then imagine her distress when he goes out to work. At her age she has no concept of time at all. You may tell her that Daddy will be back by teatime but that means nothing to her. For all she knows he has gone away again for a length of time. She knows he still exists and she has strong feelings towards him but he keeps disappearing.

As your daughter gets older she will get more used to the idea of time, although a real concept of it does not happen for many years yet. By providing her with a routine to her day you will help her come to learn the differences between waving good bye to Daddy for one or two weeks or waving goodbye until teatime. Many toddlers of this age can be heartbroken every morning when Daddy leaves for work, even though he returns home every night. They have no way of reasoning yet so feel real distress when their father leaves. Your daughter is having to cope with a more difficult situation, that of long and short absences, but not yet having the mental capability to distinguish between the two.

The way you are already dealing with this situation is good. Being positive but keeping things quite light will help her get used to Daddy coming and going. It is wonderful that she is so pleased to see him and wants to show all her things to him when he is home. Many fathers who have to cope with repeated separations may find that their toddlers are reluctant to come to them when they are home, preferring instead to be with Mummy who is the known constant presence in their life.

There are a couple of things you could try with your daughter to help her over this phase. Although you already talk about Daddy and speak with him on the phone when he is away have a small daily ritual of saying good night to him. Find a photo of him, a head and shoulders quite close up would be best, and place it in her room. Every night as part of her bedtime routine make a point of saying, “Good night” to Daddy. She may like to kiss the picture. This small way of acknowledging that Daddy is part of her life even when not in sight could help.

Secondly, it is easy to try to hide your own feelings from your daughter but sometimes acknowledge to her that you too miss Daddy when he is away. You may feel she is too young to understand your words but babies and small children are very perceptive to an adult’s moods and feelings. By expressing sometimes that you miss him or that you are happy he is coming back soon will help her as she develops her own feelings.

Until able to express herself verbally your daughter will find other ways to show how she feels about the situation. Showing all her things to Daddy is her way of telling him he is important to her. A small child will proudly show to Daddy, when he comes home in the evening, the painting she did at nursery. If your daughter is beginning to scribble with crayons start a box in which to keep some of her drawings, so she has plenty of different things to show Daddy when he comes back. Because your husband is away for stretches of time it is to be expected that your daughter will want to make up for this when he returns and she will find things to keep his attention on her. Encouraging her to have a special place to keep things to show Daddy will help her understanding that he will come back to see them.

As well as giving a toy to her father to look after let your daughter have something of his to keep. It could be an old wallet, but one she has seen him use, a key ring, anything small which could have a special place next to his picture in her room. Although you don’t want to make a big deal about his absence you do need to acknowledge it to her. This is the way your life will be in the next few years. Your daughter will grow to accept it, as children are very adaptable and she will not have known her life to be any other way. In a few months her anxiety every time he leaves the room will diminish. She will be old enough to remember that he is coming back at tea time and that teatime will happen after she has been to the park but, until she has reached that stage in her reasoning, be prepared for tears and upset.

Once your daughter is showing less signs of anxiety each time her father leaves you could begin to keep a simple calendar for when he is away for a length of time. Quite small children are reassured by the visual impact of each day being crossed off with a reassuring “ X “ after tea and counting the diminishing number of days left until Daddy returns.