Long Distance Parenting
Children Feel Loved If They Have Regular Contact With Parents
Children feel they are not loved by a parent who doesn't see them regularly. Children interpret lack of contact as lack of love. So that children feel loved, it is very important for parents to work together to encourage a healthy relationship between children and their far-away parent.
Regular contact by telephone and by mail can go a long way to show love to children who live far away. It lets them know parents think about them often and still love them. The key is to SHOW and TELL.
When writing or telephoning, don't ask children to give a message to their other parent, don't ask them about the personal life of their other parent, and don't talk negatively about their other parent. Children who become messengers, spies, or who hear bad things about their parents suffer damage. It is better for children when parents communicate directly with each other.
Parents Fear Losing Their Children When They Move Far Away
Often at the time of divorce, parents have extreme fears of losing or being denied a relationship with their children. A major move often brings a flashback of these fears and fills parents with desperation as they imagine the difficulty of maintaining a long-distance relationship with their children.
When one parent is planning to move, the best way to deal with the other parent is by telling them as soon as possible. Secretiveness will intensify fears and distrust. It is very helpful to reassure the other parent that you will continue to encourage a strong relationship between them and the children. It is also very helpful to reassure children they will continue to have regular contact with their parent.
Distance Feels Final
Families separated by distance know ". . . distance feels final, and gives tangible proof that the parents are separated. A common reaction of children is to fantasize about Mom and Dad getting back together. If a parent or a child has been hoping, however unconsciously, that the old family feeling or the old marriage was not finished, long distance will bring that hope painfully to the surface." (Ricci, p. 206)
Don't be surprised if feelings (believed to be long since resolved) come back. This gives another chance for closure of the old relationship and another chance for parents to help children gain more closure around the old family structure. Steps in closure include: 1) notice feelings, 2) experience feelings and emotions, 3) let feelings go. Some people worry if they open the door to feelings and experience their emotions, these feelings will take over, keeping people stuck in the feelings forever. It is such a relief to discover feelings do not come and stay - feelings come and go. Parents need to help children understand that feelings come and go so that children are not afraid of their feelings.
Predictability Helps Children Deal With Distance
Children of all ages need to have a clear and exact understanding of how and when they will have that all-important contact with Mom or Dad. Separation hurts, and when children don't know when they will see or hear from a parent, it unnecessarily adds to their pain.
Children who have no idea about the next contact with a parent feel tremendous loss and grieving at the end of each contact with that parent. They truly worry they will never see that parent again. Parents can reduce stress for children by telling them exactly what the schedule is for contacts with their far-away parent.
Refusing To Let Children Be With Their Other Parent Backfires
When a parent interferes with the relationship between children and their other parent, it always backfires in time. This can be as simple as showing displeasure when the other parent calls or sends something in the mail, by belittling or bad-mouthing the other parent, or refusing to allow children contact with their other parent. Children who are cut off from a parent often imagine that parent is perfect and ideal. Children fantasize about how wonderful their lives would be if they were with their far-away parent. It is usually better for children to have a realistic experience of their parents instead of a relationship they create entirely in their fantasies.
Regardless of the reason for encouraging children not to love or be with their other parent, when children grow up they usually blame the home-base parent for the relationship they didn't have with their other parent.
How Can I Encourage Healthy Relationships For Our Children And Their Other Parent?
Parents can use the same ways they use to encourage a positive, healthy relationship between children and their far-away grandparents. For instance, speak positively about the other parent; tell children it's OK to love their other parent; help children look forward to being with their other parent; talk about their being with the other parent as safe and enjoyable; let children have photos of their far-away parent; help them keep a scrapbook of the time with their far-away parent; be happy and excited when children receive mail or photos from their other parent; and make it possible for children to be at home during the time their other parent has arranged to telephone.
Children are sensitive to how parents feel and believe they will hurt one parent if they enjoy being with their other parent. Parents help children by assuring them they deserve to feel good about their relationships with both parents! Reassure children that enjoying a good relationship with one parent doesn't take away from their relationship with the other parent.
Spend Time With Children When They Are With You
A common complaint from children who see a far-away parent is that they spend more time with the step-parent and step-family than they do with their Mom or Dad. Often children have been looking forward to this time and have all kinds of expectations about how they will spend the time with their Mom or Dad. Discuss ahead of time what will be happening and what children can expect when they will be with their far-away parent. Children always cope better when they have predictability.
Children treasure time alone with a parent they haven't seen for a while. Parents should include work, play, and time alone with children when they are together. Plan one-on-one time with each child!
I Worry The Step-parent Is Trying To Take My Place
This is a common concern among parents whether or not they live far away. Children need to be able to manage their own relationship with a step-parent. Sometimes a parent gives the impression their feelings are hurt or children are disloyal if children like a step-parent. This unfairly puts children in the middle of parents' insecurities and creates unnecessary stress for children. Children do best when they are free to choose whether or not they like their step-parents. Children can thrive when they have several grown-ups that care about them.
The home-base parent can help by supporting the relationship between children and their far-away parent. Parents need to show by their words and actions that the step-parent will never take the place of Mom or Dad. Although it may be difficult, it helps when parents encourage children's relationships with step-parents - they are additions to children's lives, not replacements of parents.
How Can I Help My Children Who Haven't Seen Mom Or Dad In A Long Time?
Children who haven't seen a parent in a long time often believe they are unlovable. Parents need to reassure children they are LOVABLE and that parents will always love them (even though parents don't always like everything children say or do). Children under age 7 need to be told they are loved over and over because their brains don't understand "always" yet.
Parents cannot make up for disappointments and hurt feelings of children caused by others. It is common for parents to disappoint children - by telling children they can't do something or have something they want, by breaking promises, or by irregular contact. When children are disappointed about the other parent, LISTEN and offer comfort without cutting down the other parent. Parents do not have to agree with, or fix children's feelings.
Help children by reflecting back what children say and feel. For instance,
- "I can tell you are disappointed about . . . "
- "You must be wondering why you haven't heard from your mother/father."
- "Maybe you don't feel lovable because it has been so long since you have seen her/him."
- "I can tell you are angry or frustrated or sad or lonely or . . ."
- "I wish I knew what to say to help."
- "This is very disappointing."
Reflecting back (like a mirror) lets children know parents hear them, understand how they feel, and care about them. Many times this is all parents can do, and exactly what children need.
Because parents can't "fix" what happens between children and their other parent, a parent's greatest gift is to listen to children and offer them comfort. If parents talk down about the other parent, children are forced to take sides and are caught in the middle. Children feel guilty and disloyal when they take sides by DEFENDING a parent or by NOT DEFENDING a parent being cut down. This not fair to children and is harmful. Children need room to learn about both parents on their own.
What About When A Parent Shows Up Again After Having No Contact?
Children can benefit greatly when a parent they haven't seen or heard from in months or years re-establishes REGULAR AND PREDICTABLE contact. Often the home-base parent mistrusts the motives of the reappearing parent or wants to punish that parent for not being around. The home-base parent may feel the other parent gave up all rights to a relationship with the children by disappearing out of the children's lives. Maybe the home-base parent wants to protect the children from building hope only to have the other parent leave again.
It is important to understand that children benefit when they have a chance to rebuild a HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP with their other parent. It is also important that this relationship is rebuilt gradually to allow trust to develop. Again, listening, reflecting back, and not talking negatively about the other parent is what children need from their parents during this time.
Transportation Costs More When There Is A Long-Distance Parent
There are additional financial burdens when parenting long distance. Vicki Lansky, in her Divorce Book for Parents (p. 163) suggests, "Try to accept that all these costs are simply extra and think of them as you would any other investment with long-term benefits." Dr. Ricci (p. 205) suggests parents consider these questions: Who will pay for travel, both parents? In what proportions? What about rising costs? What priority will travel money have in family budgets? What happens if somebody fails to come through? Will older children contribute? Will certain money-saving measures be written into the agreement to ensure the lowest fares?
Tips For The Far-Away Parent
- Reassure your children you will still be connected with them when they are living with their other parent.
- Give your child immediate proof of your connection with him/her - a phone call on arrival at the new place, perhaps a phone installed in the child's room.
- Contact your child's school so you know a little about his/her world.
- Call your children (who are old enough) at least weekly.
- Give your children stamped, self-addressed envelopes and post cards so they can write to you.
- Send cassette or video tapes of yourself reading bedtime stories, showing parts of your day, etc.
- Mail pictures of you, your life, and environment.
- Collect things that remind you of your children and put them in a "Thinking of you" box. Date the items, and look at them together the next time the children are with you.
- When calling on special occasions, predetermined times for phone calls are usually helpful.
- If your budget allows, watch a TV show or TV sports event "together" by long-distance phone.
- Keep a running list of things you'd like to share with your children during the week. Encourage your children to do the same.
- Children love to receive mail, so write as often as you can. Even a postcard is enjoyed. This is not the time to preach and teach. Parents mistakenly believe preaching and teaching proves they are good parents.
- Each time your children are with you, be prepared for changes - new habits, likes and dislikes.
- Let your children know you miss them, but that you have an interesting life that continues when they are not with you, so that they don't feel guilty about your loneliness.
- Utilize children's activities in your community: library story hours, park programs, day camps.
- Videotape your activities with your children so they can watch themselves with you between times they see you.
(The above tips from Dr. Isolina Ricci and Vicki Lansky. Isolina Ricci, Ph.D.'s highly acclaimed book, The CoParenting Toolkit is highly recommended by Ada County Family Court Services and by other agencies in all parts of the country. Copies of this publication may be purchased directly from Ada County Family Court Services.)
More Tips For The Far-Away Parent
Suggestions for Children from 0 to 2 1/2 years of age:
Telephone calling doesn't work well at this age because these children are unable to speak well. However, Skype can help parents connect with young children. Frequent reminders that their far-away parent exists and cares about the child are important to help the child hold a memory of the parent. Phone calls and Skype are more productive at the later end of this stage even though children this age won't do much talking. Hearing a parent's voice or seeing the parent is the main goal of a call.
- Send many pictures.
- Send cassette or videotapes of yourself: use the child's name frequently, sing children's songs, tell favorite stories.
- Send small colorful, fun amusements: paper cutouts; stickers; autumn leaves, sea shells, whatever is found in your locale; paper hats; homemade items.
- Send cards at holidays and special occasions.
Suggestions for Children from 2 1/2 to 5 years of age:
Preschool-aged children have very different abilities to talk on the phone or Skype. Yet all of them love to listen. Keep in mind that parents will carry on a one-way conversation at this age. Avoid "why" questions. Children almost always respond, "I don't know." Young children have a hard time answering open-ended questions such as, "What did you do this week?" or "How are you?" Specific questions about details in their lives are the best way to get information such as, "Did you go to the playground this week?"
- Frequent phone calls with planned topics.
- Send cassette tapes, videos or letters as often as possible: tell about yourself and use your child's name often; talk about shared experiences such as visits to the zoo; read stories onto cassette or video tapes; send pictures cut from magazines and photos; tell riddles.
- Send a drawing you have started to your child to finish. Enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope so it can be returned to you. Talk about the drawing on the phone or on a taped message.
- Children love to receive little treats in the mail: stickers, baseball cards, balloons, small pieces of candy, homemade items, photographs.
- Send a magazine subscription and get one for yourself, too. Read and share the stories over the phone or on tape.
Suggestions for Children from 6 to 12 years of age:
Many of the suggestions for preschool-aged children work for school age children if adapted to older ages. Children always love to receive mail. Phone calls may be more conversational since children this age are more able to carry on a two-way conversation. Tapes can be sent in both directions with children making them also. Because children are now older, parents can share more interests, hobbies, and remembering experiences.
- Plan to watch the same TV program and then Skype or call to discuss it.
- Practice reading by Skype or over the phone by sending your child a book at his/her level and listening with your own copy in front of you.
- Send or text local objects or news clippings of interest. Pick your child's favorite topics such as computers, new fashion trends, etc. Preaching is usually not well received.
- Send coded messages. These can be sent in postcard form after the initial code "dictionary" is sent. (Receiving a postcard each day is great fun for children who love mail.)
- Send magic tricks - children adore these.
- Purchase some equipment for your children's special hobbies or interests such as dance shoes, a football, the next karate belt, a backpack, or a lunch box with a special character. The idea is that something that is a part of your child's life was sent specifically by you.
- Send a cute card when you don't have much to say.
- Work up a game of chess or checkers you can play by mail or Skype.
Suggestions for Children from 12 to 17 years of age:
Teenagers can assume some responsibility for traveling to be with their far-away parent. However, whether parents live together or separately, teenage years are when individual interests, school, sports, and friends can seem more important than being with a parent. Also, part-time jobs can be important to teenagers during breaks from school.
Parents shouldn't be surprised if teenagers choose to spend school breaks working or involved in sports. A helpful hint is for parents not to take this personally. This is a normal part of a teenager's healthy growth away from family and towards independence and is not a sign that parents are not important. Continue to let teens know parents are interested and love them even if teenagers are unresponsive to efforts to have a relationship across a distance. Let teens know parents are happy to hear from them anytime and see them when they are ready. Many young adults re-establish relationships with parents once they are out of high school.
- Frequent calling, Skyping, or texting sometimes feels like prying to teens. Touch base from time to time and give permission for them to call you whenever they like. Show them how to do this at your expense (perhaps collect or credit card). When they call, try not to criticize or question excessively.
- Send food. Teenagers love to eat. Send gift certificates for restaurants.
- Be aware of their interests and send or text related objects or news clippings. Pick your teenager's favorite topics such as computers, new fashion trends, etc. Preaching is usually not well received.
- Most teens have some interest in knowing more about their heritage or roots. Send items or taped messages of interest about family background.
- Share a magazine subscription in a subject of interest such as skiing, racquetball, dancing, skating, etc.
- Arrange to purchase tickets to a local athletic event or concert, and send them to your teen.
(These additional tips from Children of Divorce by M. Baris and C. Garrity and from Divorce Book for Parents by V. Lansky. These books are highly recommended by Ada County Family Court Services and by other agencies in all parts of the country. Copies of both publications may be purchased directly from Ada County Family Court Services.)