5 Key Considerations for Long-Distance Parent-Child Relationships
No matter the distance, vast or small, long-distance parent-child relationships can bring down even the most resilient of parents with a serious case of heartsickness. And while adults may be better equipped to handle some of the emotional trials of long-distance parenting, most kids will not have the ability to easily adapt and cope with being separated from one of their parents for great lengths of time. To give both parents and children the necessary support to handle long-distance parent-child relationships, families must learn to pay careful attention to everyone’s emotional needs.
The key to successful and healthy long-distance parent-child relationships is preparation. Long-distance relationships require more planning, flexibility, and creativity than other co-parenting arrangements. To help you get ready, we’ve compiled these 5 key concerns for every long-distance parent.
1. It needs to be a team effort.
Children do better when they have healthy relationships with both of their parents. Maintaining those bonds may be more difficult in long-distance relationships, but they are no less important. Both co-parents must realize and internalize this fact, and make it a key component of all of their co-parenting decisions.
With less room for error due to the need to plan well in advance, long-distance parent-child relationships require co-parents to work together to foster strong relationships, regardless of any interpersonal conflict.
For the custodial parent, this means keeping the long-distance parent apprised of day-to-day details. Using a centralized method of communication can help the long-distance co-parent feel that they’re still part of the action. Details such as when a dentist appointment is scheduled or where the next debate tournament is located may not be ‘essential’ to the long-distance co-parent. Communicating these details may not even have an impact on how they’re handled by the custodial parent. But while it might seem like an extra and unnecessary step to do so, communicating these details goes a long way in reinforcing long-distance parents' connections to their families.
Custodial parents can also help keep their children feeling connected to their other parent. Encourage your kids to make notes about the things they want to share with their other parent during their next call or video chat. Keep a running list on the fridge, family bulletin board, or on your phone. Encouraging your children to think of their other parent in this manner reinforces their connection with them. It can show your child that even though their other parent isn’t there to experience these daily events in the moment, they are no less important to them for that fact.
2. Your parenting plan needs to be precise, yet adaptable.
Long-distance parenting requires advanced planning. Children traveling long distances between households necessitates that parents have a plan that covers scheduling, expenses, and expectations. Make sure your parenting plan can adequately answer the questions that naturally come up when scheduling travel with children. For example:
- When and for how long will the child(ren) reside with the long-distance parent?
- How will the child(ren) travel between households? If they need to be accompanied, who will do so?
- How will the expenses associated with such travel be handled?
- When the children are with the custodial parent, how will contact with the long-distance parent be scheduled? How often? Via what means?
These are just a handful of the questions that must be answered for long-distance co-parenting to stay consistent.
Parenting plans should work to mitigate confusion and conflict, which is why they need to be detailed enough to answer even the most advanced of questions. But the realities of long-distance co-parenting change drastically as children age. What might be an appropriate arrangement for a two-year-old may be too restrictive for a child in middle school. Co-parents must revisit their parenting plan when appropriate to ensure that their arrangements are adapting to the evolving needs of their children.
3. Understand the importance of consistency.
Structure and clear expectations can help children adapt to long-distance parenting. Having a regularly scheduled phone call or video chat, for example, can give children something to look forward to while also providing them with a clear expectation of when they will next connect with their long-distance parent. The strain of being apart can be lessened if children and parents know when they’ll be able to get in touch with each other.
Consistency in planning must be coupled with consistency in execution, however, so both co-parents must strive to make these regularly-scheduled conversations happen without incident. Last-minute changes, by either parent, should always be kept to an absolute minimum.
4. Be proactive in helping your children cope.
Helping children cope with long-distance separation from one of their parents is easier when systems are put in place from the very beginning. But parents don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to helping their children with long-distance parenting. The internet is filled with inspiration for bridging the gap in long-distance parent-child relationships from other parents experiencing the same.
One great example is the idea of ‘Countdown Jars’, a method one mom employed with her son to help them cope with her military deployments. Fill a jar with an item, such as marbles, to represent the number of days before you next see each other. By removing a marble each day, your child will have a tangible system for visualizing the next time you’ll see each other. Longer stretches of time can feel like forever to a child, so creating a system that helps them see the progress they’ve made toward seeing their long-distance parent can help soothe anxiety.
5. Flex your creativity muscles.
Even if contact is regularly scheduled between long-distance parents and children, relationships can be bolstered by occasional spontaneity. Whether it’s recording a video message for them to enjoy later or sending them a spur-of-the-moment gift, reminding your children that they are always on your mind can be healing for both them and you.
With long-distance relationships, it isn’t just day-to-day interactions that require families to get creative. Holidays and celebrations also necessitate that long-distance parent-child relationships be highly adaptable. Divorce already has a far-reaching impact on how families navigate holidays and celebrations, so adding the extra complication of long-distance parenting can feel like adding insult to injury. But as with most everything else, this is where advanced planning coupled with some creativity can work wonders.
Don’t limit yourself to figuring out new arrangements for the traditional holidays that your family celebrates. Create stronger bonds with your children by establishing new traditions that celebrate shared interests and passions. Traditions (and non-traditional holidays) created by you and your children can be much more flexible and be accommodating of the needs of long-distance parent-child relationships.
Long-distance parent-child relationships are far from ideal. They require additional work and preparation to be successful and to foster strong bonds between parents and children. No matter the hard work that is required, however, the time and attention co-parents pay to solve the issues of long-distance parenting are more than worth it. With these 5 tips in mind, co-parents can come together as a team to keep their family bonds strong, no matter the distance.
NOTE: Many state and federal laws use terms like ‘custody’ when referring to arrangements regarding parenting time and decision-making for a child. While this has been the case for many years, these are not the only terms currently used to refer to these topics.
Today, many family law practitioners and even laws within certain states use terms such as ‘parenting arrangements’ or ‘parenting responsibility,’ among others, when referring to matters surrounding legal and physical child custody. You will find these terms as well as custody used on the OurFamilyWizard website.