While long-distance parenting is not easy, it certainly can be done properly through time management, effort and accepting the situation.
Parents often worry about whether they’re doing a good job of raising their children. But when the role becomes a long-distance affair, it’s even more of a challenge.
Suddenly, an avalanche of painful questions arise: How can I be a real parent to my child when I’m not physically there? Will the gap result in emotional detachment between us?
While certainly not ideal, long-distance parenting is more common than we think. The UAE is no exception, with many parents either leaving their children in their home country to work here, or sending their children back home to live with family for practical reasons.
But how can this impact the child, and how best can parents deal with this situation to ensure they maintain a strong and healthy relationship with their children?
Experts agree that both nature and nurture play a big role in how a child responds to tough situations, including separation.
“One has to take into account the child’s temperament, health, ability level, age at separation, support system and attachment with parents in order to anticipate how such a situation may affect them,” shares Bene Katabua, educational psychologist at KidsFIRST Medical Center.
“What we do know, however, is that it has a psychological effect on their development. Children may feel rejected and may develop poor coping mechanisms. This could negatively affect their relationships, self-esteem, academic achievement, behaviour and social skills.”
As with any long-distance relationship, communication is key to alleviate the burden of the physical gap.
This can be done through phone calls, video chats, text or instant messaging. If real-time conversation is not possible, send a short video or a recorded message to let kids know that you miss them.
“Time should be set aside to connect with children and show interest in their day-to-day activities. Children may often require reassurance of their importance in the parents’ life in order to feel secure,” explains Bene.
Children, particularly teenagers, can be very unpredictable and might take time to warm up during conversations. Don’t take this personally. Instead, be patient and consistent in making them feel that they can always rely on you.
As parents, it’s tempting to make up for your absence through material things as a way to please children. This is fine, but emphasis should be placed on relationship.
“Rather than sending an extravagant gift, perhaps send a thoughtful one instead, maybe something your child mentioned that they really enjoy,” advises Bene.
Most importantly, don’t let guilt take over: “Parental guilt is amplified when making a difficult decision that requires you to separate from your children,” says Bene.
“That separation is very difficult on families and the guilt can often incapacitate parents.
“Acknowledging that these feelings of guilt are normal is the first step. It is also important to reframe ideas of what it means to be a parent or caregiver, and how that can be done without physical presence.
“Furthermore, it would be beneficial to make use of a support system whereby you can bring these feelings to the fore without judgement.
“It is essential to remember that just as physical presence does not make you a parent, physical absence does not take away your parenthood.
Bridge the distance
Maintaining a healthy connection with your children is possible with these tips.
Communication: Your interaction with children should send certain messages: You are loved. You are missed. You are accepted. Ask how your child’s day was and offer words of encouragement. Actively listen when they tell stories about their day and let them know you wish you were there to share the moment.
Scheduling: Keep a schedule with them for phone calls or video chats, but be flexible to change the schedule according to their needs. Keep in mind that kids tend to get bored with strict routines, so change the schedule once in a while.
Personal items: Send them voice-notes and personalised letters with photos – these are tokens that they can hold on to.
Shared interests: Try to engage in shared activities by watching the same TV show, reading the same book or doing the same sport. This will keep you in the loop with your child’s interest and you’ll have more to talk about.
Close relationship: Stay connected with the people closest to your children – they are your bridge to help you better understand them and their evolving personalities.
WORDS Ferdinand Godinez