Let’s face it; it’s never easy being a parent. We constantly struggle, wondering if we’re doing the best we can for our kids. It’s so much pressure knowing that you only get a short window of time to prepare them to become responsible, healthy, and emotionally balanced adults. For some parents, there is an extra challenge of being geographically distant from their children. How can a parent really be a parent when they are living far away, and they can only see their kids on summer vacations and holidays?
Keep the lines of communication open with the other parent: One of the most important ways to ensure you have a strong connection to your kids is to do everything possible to keep the lines of communication open with the parent who has primary custody. This is not always easy, but it’s one of the best ways to keep abreast of what’s happening in your child’s life.
Find out from them when a good time is to contact your child during the week and on weekends. If your visitation schedule is not predetermined through a court order, give them plenty of notice when you’re planning a visit. Try to be accommodating and fair around transportation for your child when he/she comes to visit you. Remember, to that parent you have it easy. They’re shouldering most of the burden of getting your child to school on time, keeping up with homework, going to after school activities, and all the other mundane day-to-day stuff.
There is another reason you want to make every effort to have good communication with the custodial parent. They are aware of any struggles that your child may be having in school or at home. Just as you want your short time with them to be as perfect as possible, your child does, too. Your child may not be eager to share any news that could cause conflict. She may avoid telling you she is failing a subject in school, or being disrespectful or destructive at home. Staying in contact with the custodial parent affords you a greater chance of getting a full picture of your child’s life when you can’t be there every day.
Now, on to the fun stuff…
Technology is your friend! Today more than ever, people are able to stay connected from a distance. In addition to telephones, there are many ways to reach out that are not that costly. If you have internet access in your home, it can be a great way to have regular contact with your child. There are so many ways to communicate: texting, email, instant messaging, and Skype, to name a few. One dad I know works very long hours at his office and travels frequently. Although he lives with his child, he realizes that his two-year-old son does not see him very much during the week. So, a few times a week, they Skype each other (with Mom’s help, of course!). Even at the young age of two, his toddler knows that’s his dad on the computer, and his face lights up when he sees him.
Send a care package: Let’s not forget the good old U.S. Mail, either. Children absolutely love to get mail! (They don’t get inundated with bills and junk mail like we do.) Consider sending small care packages every so often. They need not be expensive items. Small items like Legos, flavored lip gloss, action figures, and art supplies are easy to mail and inexpensive. Children of any age would love to get some homemade cookies or other treats. Of course, you can always send a note or a card, just to let them know that you’re thinking of them and that you love them.
A word of warning: Don’t expect that your child will automatically respond with the same frequency that you’re contacting him. It doesn’t mean that they don’t appreciate what you’re doing, or that they don’t care. They just don’t have the maturity yet to be that socially aware.
Make the most of your time — but don’t forget structure: When those special days finally arrive and you’re enjoying a visit together, make the most of that time. Don’t pressure them with questions or comments about the other parent. Keep the focus on your child and enjoy every precious moment as much as possible. That being said, don’t let structure go out the window. Kids need structure, so keep some order in the day. Keep a regular bedtime schedule and let them help out around the house. You can still make it enjoyable by working together as a family. For instance, get your child involved with you in some yard work, and then kick back after it’s done and order some take-out. Or, cook dinner together in the kitchen. Including your child in these tasks is a great way to teach them practical skills and improve their self esteem.
Make some new traditions and keep some favorite old ones: If your child is going to be with you for the holidays, talk to them about some things they’d like to do. They might be interested in going to a specific music event, going window shopping, or just watching a beloved movie together. Don’t forget to introduce some of your family’s traditions, too, like making your Grandma’s potato latkes together or hiding a Christmas pickle on the tree.
Record your memories: Don’t forget to take lots of pictures and even video if you can. Later on, you can send them a small album of your time together.
So, if you are a parent who is living far away from your child, don’t despair. If you communicate with them on a consistent basis and keep your own expectations realistic, you still have the ability to be an important and meaningful part of your child’s life.
Jacqueline McDowell formerly worked as an Empowering Parents 1-on-1 Coach. Prior to coming to Empowering Parents, she has worked in a diverse range of residential care settings with people who have been impacted by mental illness, cognitive and physical disabilities, as well as pregnant and parenting teens. She has a Bachelor's degree in Social Work from the University of Southern Maine. She is the proud parent of an adult son, Jeremy.