Divorce is disruptive for kids, even if the parents live close to each other. But it’s particularly challenging when a non-custodial parent moves far away from a primary parent. It makes it difficult or impossible for the non-custodial parent to attend everyday events like sporting events or school activities or to have spontaneous time with the kids – like taking them out for ice cream. It’s also challenging for the kids to maintain contact with the extended family of the non-custodial parent. Children may feel abandoned by the non-custodial parent, or at least feel less close to them, because they are not with them every day. However, there are ways that parents can mitigate the challenges of long-distance parenting.
Dr. Edward Fruk reports on a study done in 2003 by Braver et al that studied 500 college students whose parents had divorced. They were divided into two groups: one with a parent living an hour or less away and another with a parent living more than an hour away. “Results showed those whose parents had been separated by more than an hour’s drive were “significantly disadvantaged,” scoring poorly on numerous measures, including hostility, distress over their parents’ divorce, and generally poor physical health and life satisfaction.”
While deciding to relocate is a difficult decision to make, parents should try and keep the needs of the children in mind, even if a move is inevitable. Fruk summarizes another study by Kelly and Lamb that recommends relocating after your children are at least three years old since children are not able to express themselves or understand the reason why one parent is no longer living in the home.
From Fruk’s article, he reports that state courts have traditionally maintained that a relocating parent makes for a happy more content person and therefore a happy more content parent. It appears, however, that some state courts are taking another look at this theory based on current research on the subject. Current research is showing that children with parents who are actively involved in co-parenting following a divorce should remain near the children as to prevent deterioration of the parent-child relationship. Furthermore, some research from the University of Delaware shows that children with involved fathers most likely will exhibit higher self-esteem and self-control, stronger coping skills and stronger social skills.
So, what can you do if you are in a long-distance parenting role with your children? How can you be involved in their daily lives yet live so far away? How can you be the father or mother that your children need?
Many researchers, therapists, bloggers, and long-distant parents have written on the topic of long-distance parenting. We have gathered their best advice, tips, and suggestions for making this long-distance parenting work for your family. We also included some great resources for you to dive deeper into the topic of long-distance parenting.
#1: Keep communication lines open between the parents
- Discuss the visitation schedule in a calm rational manner.
- Discuss all the extracurricular activities, school, caregivers, friends, etc. with your co-parent in order to keep everyone informed and to help in developing a schedule for communications and visits with the child.
- Include both parents in decisions that must be made for the child.
- Be open and positive to the other parent’s suggestions and opinions.
- Do not place your child in the middle of disputes or conflicts you have with the co-parent. Communicate with the co-parent about your conflicts and never the child.
- Respect the “house rules” of the custodial parent and try to maintain those as much as possible in terms of travel, phone time, bedtime, chores, screen time, social media, homework, etc. Children need structure and consistency.
- Decide ahead of time what information needs to be shared with the non-custodial parent and then how it will be shared.
- Share as much information as possible with the non-custodial parent in terms of the child’s health, activities, school, etc.
- Determine how holidays, birthdays and special occasions will be handled. Try trading off holidays or if the distance is great, consider summers and holidays with the non-custodial parent. Be specific in setting the duration of these visits. You will need to re-evaluate as the child ages to accommodate their increasing activities.
- Be sure to include arrangements for school breaks and summer recess. This would include any child care provisions. Get these arrangements in writing.
- Be cognizant of the possible costs involved with travel arrangements. Consider how the children will travel to see the non-custodial parent, who will pay for the travel costs and who will accompany the children during travel (if necessary). Here is a link to the TSA information on minors flying alone.
- Create a shared schedule that includes their activities, school events, time spent with the other parent, etc. Try using an app like WeParent that makes this task easier.
- Seek the advice of the custodial parent on the best times to call or video chat.
- Respect the child’s need to be involved with the non-custodial parent and allow them to display photos and gifts from the non-custodial parent. Allow them to talk about the parent as well.
- Do not make negative comments about either parent to the child.
- Support the attempts by the long-distant parent to communicate with the child. Have the child be available for calls and video chats, encourage them to respond to emails and text messages.
- Encourage your child to call the non-custodial parent to share current events, a special day or happening.
- Let the children know that you want them to communicate and visit with the non-custodial parent.
- Use technology, like WeParent, to maintain open lines of communication with your co-parent.
#2: Maintain the relationship with the child and the non-custodial parent
- Set a schedule and stick to it. Children need to have regularity and consistency in their lives. When you set a schedule and stick to it, they also learn that they can trust you because you do what you say you are going to do.
- When you are video chatting or talking with your children, don’t let other things interfere with your time. Don’t introduce your new partner too soon.
- As the parent, you are the one who must initiate the contact. Be persistent in reaching your children, especially if they are not available immediately.
- Have a plan for your conversation or video chat. Children can become “bored” with a call if you only ask them questions. Come up with an activity or theme for your contact.
- The custodial parent should encourage the children to keep a list of things they want to talk about with their other parent during their next call or video chat. Maybe gather recent artwork, tests, books, etc. that they want to share with the other parent.
- Learn all you can about your child’s teachers, coaches, friends, activities, interests. You may have to keep notes so you can be current on everything. You may also have to do a little research about certain activities or interests so you can learn what they are if you are unfamiliar.
- Become familiar and proficient with Skype, FaceTime, and other video chat apps. Find the one that works best for you and your children. Video chats with infants, toddlers, and young elementary children allow them to be able to see you and hear you.
- Use cloud storage and email to discuss homework assignments and projects.
- Become proficient with text messaging, emails and other forms of technology used for communications and find one that works best for your family.
- Send the child videos of you reading a story or a funny video clip you created yourself.
- Teach them how to make small videos to share with you.
- Don’t forget about traditional mail. Children love to receive things in the mail. Send postcards, little packages, care-packages if they are sick. Include positive and encouraging messages. Mention a test or project they worked on and did a particularly good job.
- Write letters on an interesting thing like their favorite colored paper, a copy of the title page of their favorite book, etc.
- Have pizza or balloons delivered on the day of their special event.
- Provide your child with their own stationery and encourage them to send you things in the mail.
- Try to arrange for you and your children to do the same activity over a period of time. Then connect with them about this activity. You can call, email, Skype with them about the book you both read or the movie you both saw.
- “Maintain a positive attitude with your child.” Try not to lecture or scold. You can offer encouragement for better grades or improved behavior but try and keep things positive.
- Ask open-ended questions. This allows your children to provide details in their answers rather than just a yes or a no.
- Go off-script and call your child at a non-scheduled time, just to say hello or good night or I was thinking about you.
- Include things about your relationship that are special to just you and the children like an inside joke, story or special name.
- Share your work with your child, if age appropriate. Letting them know what you do, why you are away, etc. makes it easier for them to understand your absence.
- Create your own video via musical.ly and share it with your children.
- Send your young children a music video or tape of you singing some of their favorite songs.
- Create your own customs and traditions with your children.
- Avoid falling victim to guilt gifts. The children just want your time and attention.
- If they are young, start by reading a book to your child either with a video chat or phone call. Now you have a jump off point for the following conversation.
- Create a signature sign off that you and your children come up with.
- Create new traditions but keep some of the old ones that are important to you and your child. Find “new” holidays and make plans to celebrate a few of these with your child. Try a website like Brownielocks and the 3 Teddy Bears to find interesting holidays and observances.
- Take pictures and videos to remember the time spent together. Share these with your child after their visit.
- Contact the school to get on their mailing list for grades, parent-teacher conferences, newsletters, etc. Do the same with extracurricular activities.
- Read to your child during video chats or send them an audio tape of you reading a story to them.
- Find out their favorite TV show or movie, then watch it so you can talk to your child about it.
- Arrange for visits as often as you can afford it.
- Find interactive things you can do with your child….games, online games, etc.
- Include things about your relationship that are special to just you and the children like an inside joke, story or special name.
- Avoid letting too much time pass between visits.
- Be more flexible with your preteens and adolescent regarding the visitation schedule especially if it might interfere with their sports schedule, dance or special event with friends.
- Have a dedicated space for your children when they visit. Make sure they feel that your home is also THEIR home.
- When your children visit, be sure to take part in all aspects of their care. For infants and toddlers, this includes, bathing, feeding, maintaining the nap and bedtime schedule, etc.
- If you visit your child for a longer period, try to meet their friends and friends’ parents. Also try to volunteer at their school for a special event, etc.
- Know your child’s favorite foods and try and prepare those when they visit. If cooking is not your thing, then find a local restaurant that makes that dish.
- Send newspaper clipping (or hyperlinks for the older children) about interesting things happening so you can talk about them later.
- If you can, plan a visit around a business trip, stop by and take your child out to dinner.
- For older children, try to send messages “in code” where they get a clue to decipher the code and therefore the message.
- Try using a “countdown” jar. Fill a jar with marbles or pennies to represent the number of days until your next visit with your child. Then have the child remove a penny each day. This system of visualization will help the child understand the time frame for their next visit with you.
#3: Explore additional resources on the topic of long-distance co-parenting
- Long-Distance Parenting After Divorce: How to Stay Connected to Your Child by Terry Gaspard, for DivorceMagazine.comUpdated: November 20, 2017
- Staying in Touch When Miles Separate You and Your Children, Blog for DivorceHelpForParents.com
- Long-distance Parenting: A co-parenting Guide for Divorced and Separated Parents, by David Schram and Christina Pucci for University of Missouri Extension, Focus on Kids
- Divorce & Long Distance Parenting: How to Cope with Being Away by Chris Illuminati for Fatherly.com, June 20, 2018.
- 5 Tips for Dads Who Parent Long Distance by Curtis Colden for GoodMenProject.com, February 13, 2016.
- Long Distance Parenting: How to Stay Connected When Your Child Lives Far Away by Jacqueline McDowell for EmpoweringParents.com
- Long Distance Parenting by Brent D. Gardiner for FatherAndChild.org
- DistanceParenting.org Private site that deals with all aspects of long-distance parenting. Sells some items like books, webcams, cell phones, tablets, etc.
- Effective Long Distance Parenting, Blog for Children-and-Divorce.com
- Relocation and Co-Parenting by Edward Kruk, Ph.D. for PsychologyToday.com October 2, 2013.
- 10 Tips for Being Superb at Long Distance Parenting, by Jenny Kido for XNSPY.com, March 23, 2015.
- Tips for Long Distance Parenting by Diana Mercer for HuffPost.com, May 25, 2011
- How to Create a Long-Distance Parenting Plan by Shawn Garrison for DadsDivorce.com
- Parenting Time Over School Breaks by Sarah Long for DadsDivorce.com
- Long Distance Parenting and Joint Legal Decision Making, Blog for MyModernLaw.com
- Long Distance Co-Parenting. 6 Tips to Successfully Co-Parent after Divorce, Blog by Kyla for RoundAndRoundRosie.com Blog, September 17, 2018.
- Divorced Parents, Give the Gift of ‘No Drama’ to Your Children This Holiday Season by Dr. Kate Roberts, Blog for HuffPost.com, December 12, 2014
- Mom Talk: Parenting my Daughter from 700 Miles Away, Blog by Sarah Behr for MotherMag.com, October 9, 2018
- 7 Tips to Help Make Long-Distance Parenting Work After Divorce, by Terry Gaspard, for DivorcedMoms.com, December 12, 2017
- Long Distance Parenting: 12 Ways to Stay Connected to your Child, by Linda Jacobs for DivorcedMoms.com, August 17, 2014
- Making the Most of Long-Distance Fathering, by Ken Canfield for AllProDad.com
- 5 Ways to Make Long Distance Parenting, Blog by Terri F. Sanor, for Community.Today.com, June 14, 2018
- Parenting Across the Miles, by Meredith Richardson, for Mediate.com, November 2016
- Co-Parenting Long Distance, Forum for WhatToExpect.com, July 16, 2016
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