How to Support Children's Social Responses (and their families)

A new routine needs to be established, but this needs to be done in conjunction with the child so they are more likely to cooperate. Consider giving children a choice of two options that the parent is happy with, either way, as a way to scaffold the child’s thinking but give them small wins. For example: 'Would you like to put your shoes on now or after you've packed your bag?'.

For 2-8 years

Visual timetables showing a picture of what happens on that day (one day at a time for younger children) can assist the child to know what is happening and what can be expected. It can help reduce acting out behaviors. Consistency is important, especially when the routine is new. Older siblings can often lead by example. This challenging phase normally improves with time. It is the cause of a lot of strain in the household.

girl in blue shirt looking at the window

As a parent, it is not easy to constantly hear that their child is struggling socially. Be careful about what you say to parents and try to give feedback about their child in a non-judgmental, understanding way. This can be an avenue to offer support because the parent may really need time away from the child to recharge their batteries. Be careful to view this as a response to the parent being away or a relocation, rather than the overall character of the child. Work from a strengths-based perspective and find interests that the child can really explore in the service (Module 1 has more about this).

In the short term, you may wish to encourage the parent to hold play dates at the park or at their house. This brings attention to the child rather than forcing them to go out. 

Building empathy and understanding of the experiences of families who have a parent who works away can help the children's peers develop empathy. Activities to help the group understand what the child is going through can help to reconnect the child to their peer group. This might include reading some of the eBooks from the Children's Resources, engaging with the related teaching activities, and doing some of the activity books and interactive eBooks as a whole class.

Blowing bubbles can assist with breath control, which can calm children.

The creative arts can be a wonderful way for children to express their emotions. Making some of the puppets and rope doll characters from the eBooks (which you can find in the Children's Resources program) might be a great way to connect with the child. Pretend play episodes acting out some of the social reactions children have when their parents work away can be explored. These could be also explored in D is for Deployment: Ann raps it up in the animations when the child cannot cope with her friends. Re-enacting some of these scenes with puppets and rope dolls can allow children to practice their emotions in a safe way.

Drawing and painting can be a wonderful outlet for children and help them to express their emotions. It can also help them imagine how they would like things to be, or what they would like to do with the parent when they return. In this video (2 mins) Dr Margaret Brooks discusses how drawing can assist with creativity and imaginative play.

For 9 years plus

Dance, music and craft can be a vehicle for emotional expression in a safe way.

1. Ask the child to create some movement and language expressing their feelings about a parent working away, especially in relation to how it makes them feel. You can support them to develop this into a sequence that might include how they react or feel when a parent is called away urgently for work or when a parent goes away for training episodes.

2. Once you have worked on a sequence of moves, add some sound effects. These could include percussion instruments, body percussion or other sound sources (for example, the sounds you could create using other objects).

3. Create a playlist to suit the emotions the child expresses about their parent's work changes and situations. For example, a sad playlist, an angry playlist, songs to make you feel good, and a dance playlist that might be useful at various times.

4. Create a mandala or godseye, or print off some colouring-in for mindfulness activities. Other activities might be Sodoku, crosswords, find-a-words, woodwork, weaving, knitting and crochet.

5. Yoga, meditation and exercise. Apps such as Smiling Minds (free) and Insight Timer (free) might be useful.


Comforters can also work well for some children. These can be well-loved familiar items, such as a blanket, a soft toy or something that belongs to the parent who has gone away. Research shows that children transfer the characteristics of parents onto these non-human items, which is why they become a source of comfort. Encourage children to bring a comfort item from home. If you work in an early childhood space which restricts children bringing items from home, consider whether the child could put the comfort item in a place where they can see it during the day, or have discrete access to it (such as in their bag). 


In the same way, this transfer of parental characteristics can occur with pets. Therefore, pets can also provide comfort to children during times of transition. In one PhD study, defence families reported using pets to:

  • provide a sense of security when the parent was away for work (the dog was allowed into the house)
  • give the child something to cuddle and care for when the parent went away (a new puppy was bought for the family just before the parent left on a long absence).

In the likely event that bringing pets into an early childhood setting is not possible, educators could consider other ways in which children can discuss their animal friends - could the child bring in photos of their pet? Or you could have an activity where everyone talks about their pet?

medium-coated brown dog during daytime

Last modified: Tuesday, 14 November 2023, 1:27 PM