Long distance parenting is one of the most difficult challenges facing divorced parents and their children. And yet, it is a very real experience for countless numbers of divorced families. We live in a mobile society. It is estimated that in North America the average family changes residences every five years. And many families move even more frequently. When parents are together, moving their family isn't usually seen as a problem. The problem occurs when parents are divorced and one parent is required to become a long distant parent.
Why Do Parents Relocate? Long distance parenting occurs for a variety of reasons. Among them are the following:
- A new job or business opportunity
- A better job
- A current job transfer or promotion
Marriage or relationship with someone living in another location
- Employment opportunity for a new partner
- Moving close to family for support
- To get away from a former spouse
Long Distance Parenting and Your Child
While all of the reasons listed above for initiating a move away from one parent may be at the very least valid and in many cases necessary, it is important for parents contemplating a relocation to also understand that there are consequences for their children. Children rely on their parents to make good decisions on their behalf. And they have no choice but to abide by those same decisions.
When one parent initiates a relocation that relegates the other parent to being a long distance parent, children also become long distance children. The relationship they have with their distant parent will very likely change. Here are some of the things your children may experience with a long distance parenting situation:
The parent-child relationship becomes more formal. Times together must be scheduled in advance and leave little opportunity for spontaneous moments of closeness that often occur in otherwise mundane day-to-day activities. For example, there are fewer opportunities for those heart-to-heart talks that happen on the drive home from an activity or while working on a project together. Spontaneity isn't so easy accomplished for the long distance parent.
Children lose out on having both parents in their cheering section - attending their events, checking in with school and homework, and generally knowing the details of their lives on a daily basis. This is a huge loss for kids.
Children lose the balance that having two parents provides. It is well documented that fathers and mothers provide different perspectives and experiences for their children. Both perspectives are valuable and necessary for children to thrive. When one parent becomes a long distance parent, he/she tends to have less influence on how their child is raised.
Children frequently lose contact with the long distance parent's extended family, which for children is yet another significant loss.
Children typically have to travel to spend time with their long distance parent. They rack up hundreds of hours of travel time either on the road or in the air. This takes them away from their friends and daily routines. It also means that they may not be able to fully participate in sports or other extracurricular activities that occur on a weekly basis. And it makes seeing the other parent a BIG DEAL, instead of a regular part of the daily round.
Some children feel abandoned by the parent who is not with them. Others blame themselves that a parent is not there. And others feel responsible and guilty for abandoning a parent by moving away. None of these are healthy reactions for children and may have far-reaching consequences for their adjustment and mental health.
Making Long Distance Parenting Work
If, after considering all of the alternatives, there is no choice but to initiate a move, then both parents must work to ensure that the relationship between the parent at a distance and their child continues. This is no easy task. It requires focus, integrity, compassion and a commitment to the parent-child relationship. And frankly, sometimes after a divorce those attributes are in short supply. But as you keep your focus squarely placed on your children and what they need in order to thrive, it becomes easier to take the actions that will meet their needs.
Communication is Key
When parents are living in the same household, communication is relatively easy. And even if the communication isn't great, proximity helps. If you see your kids every day you know when they are sick, if they got a haircut or a body part pierced! You know how school is going, who their friends are, what they like to do in spare time etc. Proximity also helps parents communicate with each other. One parent may be in charge of handling more of the details of raising the kids, but one way or another they communicate necessary information like school conferences, sports details, concerts and programs and the like. (Yes, I know that there are some families where one parent doesn't know these things, in fact doesn't even have a clue, but in my experience this is the exception rather than the rule.)
When parents divorce, this automatic communication about daily life changes. Sometimes it ends. If parents are hurt, angry or just not interested in communicating, the parent who lives away from the kids misses out on a lot of information.
And when one parent is a long distance parent, the flow of information about kids trickles down to almost nothing - unless both adults make it a point to communicate on a regular basis.
Communication Tips for Long Distance Parents
As the long distance parent, you must work to maintain your relationship with your child. You may feel angry that this task falls on your shoulders since you may not have initiated the move in the first place. It's easy to feel like a victim and spend your energy blaming. But I don't advise it! Instead, take heart, because being a long distance parent does not mean that you will automatically disappear from your child's life. It just requires some creativity and cooperation to pull it off successfully. Here are a few tips to help.
Remain interested and involved in your child's life. Make it a point to know the names of the adults who interact with your child: teachers, coaches, scout leaders, other parents, neighbors etc. Similarly, know the names of your child's closest friends. Take an interest in homework (this can often be viewed online), and other activities that interest your child.
Remember that as the adult and thus it is your responsibility to initiate contact with your child. Don't sit passively by, waiting for you child to call you or send an e-mail. You take the lead! And on the same subject, try not to take it personally if your child doesn't call you right back or only stays on the phone for a few minutes. This is pretty normal for kids and usually has nothing to do with you.
Initiate a regular schedule for contact and follow it faithfully. If you say you're going to call, call. If you are going to send an e-mail, do it. Keep your word. All relationships are built on trust and predictability. Your child needs to be able to count on you following through. In marketing there is a phrase called "top of mind awareness" or TOMA. As a long distance parent you want to take the kind of communication steps that give you top of mind awareness with your child. That means regular, predictable, positive contact.
When talking with your child, try to avoid asking questions that will yield yes, no or one-word answers. They can be pretty frustrating for a parent, not to mention very short! For example, instead of asking "Did you have fun at school today?" which is likely to get you a yes or no and then silence, ask "What was your favorite activity at school today?" At least now, you're likely to get some information. And if you know the projects your child is working on, or the homework he has, you can tailor your questions. For example, "What did your teacher think of your report on France?"
Never use your communication time with your child to grill her about the other parent and things that are going on in the other household. Keep your child out of the middle.
Think beyond the telephone when it comes to connecting with your child. If your child is old enough to have access to a computer, get an e-mail relationship going. You can send cards, exchange photos and forward information that will be of interest to your child as well as just say hi. Consider adding web-cam visits to your tool box of communication. While virtual visitation will never take the place of face-to-face time, it's great to be able to see your child and have a "real time" conversation. Of course you will need to coordinate this with the other parent. If you have questions about virtual visitation, please have a look here.
In this age of high-tech communication, don't forget about good old fashioned snail mail. Kids love to receive mail. Send cards, letters, postcards and an occasional "care package." Nothing beats the thrill of opening mail that was sent just for you.
Connect around a theme. For instance, watch the same television program and then talk or e-mail afterward. Share a passion for a sports team, read the same book and then discuss it, play chess or other games by mail or online.
Maintain a positive attitude with your child. If you feel the need to encourage better grades or improved behavior, make sure you balance those comments with positive ones. Try for a ratio of 5 good comments to 1 "do better" comment. The simple truth is that kids are no different than adults. None of us wants to hear how bad we are or what a poor job we are doing.
Stay in contact with your child's other parent and respect their house rules. Clear things with the other parent before mentioning them to your child.
Tips for the Other Parent
Since your child is living with you, it becomes your responsibility to support the relationship between your child and her long distance parent. You don't have to do all of the work - just your 50%. The other 50% belongs to the long distance parent. Here are some suggestions that will help you in your important role.
Never badmouth the other parent to your child -even if you are unhappy with something he or she has said or done. Tell the other parent, not your child. You can subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) influence the success or failure of your child's relationship with the long distance parent. Make sure your motives are honorable. Your kids need that from you.
Support the long distance parent's attempts to stay in touch with your child. For example, see that your child is available for a telephone call if one is scheduled. Or set up an e-mail account for your child so that he can have a way to be in touch with the other parent. Make time for virtual visits and give your child privacy and space to spend time with the other parent. See to it that all mail from the other parent is given promptly to your child. Support plans to read the same book or watch a program on television. Offer your own suggestions about other possibilities for joint communication.
Share information with the long distance parent. Make it easy for them to get information from school, physicians, coaches etc. Consider investing in one of the online programs that have been developed for divorced parents. A great one is Our Family Wizard at www.ourfamilywizard.com. With it you can provide information about your child that the other parent can access day or night, and vice-versa. There is even a way for kids to add information, with password protection for other areas so that they don't see everything. Parents who have information tend to be more involved and feel more connected to their children.
Help keep the other parent "alive" for your child. Give your child a photograph of the other parent and display it in your child's bedroom. Allow your child to talk about the other parent. I once worked with a family where the children were not allowed to say the word "dad" in front of their mother. Yikes!! That was really hard on them. Follow Thumper's rule - "If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all."
Keep your word about parenting time and follow the parenting plan agreements you've made. Do your part to handle travel arrangements and getting your children ready to transition to the other parent. Let your children know that you want them to spend time with their other parent. Take all burdens off of your children as they travel to see the other parent. Make it easy and positive.
With a little planning and cooperation, long distance parenting doesn't have to be the end of the world of parenting. Stay positive and above all else, show up for your child.