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Long Distance Parenting

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Whatever the reason you have to be away from your child -- a job change, a temporary relocation, a change in your family -- there are ways you can stay in touch with your child and maintain close ties. Being a long-distance parent requires hard work and a steady commitment. The more you let your child know you are thinking about him, the more connected you will both feel. Here are some ways to help you plan for a successful time apart, whether your child is a toddler or a teenager.

Making plans for your child while you are away
You will want to be sure that your child is well cared for while you are away and that you have planned ways to stay connected. Think about how your absence might affect your child's daily routines and upcoming plans.
 
Look carefully at your child's schedule, activities, routines, and transportation needs. If you are going on a trip, decide whether you will need help with backup care, carpool arrangements, meals, or evening child care. Find out if a relative, friend, or babysitter can fill in while you are away -- try to use caregivers your child is familiar with. If your child's other parent will be the primary caretaker while you are away, talk together about what support he or she may need in caring for your child or children without your help. The parent staying behind may need a night or day out, time to keep appointments of his or her own, or run errands without your child. Make these arrangements as far in advance as you can.
 
Post your contact information in a central location at home or wherever your child will be staying. Leave these numbers with your child's teacher or child care provider as well.
 
Explain to your child how long you will be gone and that you will miss him. Children under 5 generally need only two or three days' notice that you are leaving. School-age children may need more time, so you can help them plan ahead for the time you will be apart. Consider leaving a special calendar in the house that your child can use to mark off the days until you will see each other again. Or mark where you will be on a map, so that he has a better sense of where you are.
 
If you are going to miss your child's soccer game, concert, or other special event, try to arrange to have someone videotape or take photos of it. Then, when you return home, you and your child can enjoy the event together.
 
Hide little surprises and notes at home where your child will find them. It will be fun for him to discover these while you're gone. You might create a treasure hunt, with a different clue to be opened each day you're away.

Connecting from a distance
Communicating with your child from a distance will take some diligence and planning, especially if you have different schedules. Here are a few ideas:
 
Write letters or postcards. Your child will love reading these, even if they are brief. You might want to enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope to make it easier for your child to respond.
 
Send e-mails and fax messages. This is a great way to stay connected with your child from a distance and across time zones. Ask her to fax you a picture she's drawn or a story she's written. And with e-mail or a fax machine, it's possible to help out with a homework assignment from 3,000 miles away.
 
Put together a photo album. Include pictures of you and your child together, for her to look at while you are gone.
Send small gifts. Pipe cleaners, balloons, and flower seeds are educational and inexpensive gifts for young children, ages 3 to 6. If your child is older, she might enjoy magic tricks, recipes, or colored pencils.
 
Tape record letters. You can record yourself reading your child a story or poem or singing her a song. If your child is older, you can tell her stories about your childhood or record songs from the radio that she will enjoy.
Make a video. If you have moved away from your child, you might want to videotape your new neighborhood, home, office, or friends. If your child has moved, you can videotape some of her favorite places, or track down friends, teachers, or neighbors to say "hello" on tape.
 
Celebrate with your child. Send a card or arrange for flowers to be delivered to your child before or after a play, recital, sports game, or other big event in her life. Include a note telling her how proud you are of her accomplishment.

You may need your family to help you feel connected, too, while you're away. You might ask family members to send you clippings from the local paper or a container of your favorite cookies -- or anything else that would help you feel a part of the family from a distance.

Talking on the phone
It's very important to arrange regular times to talk with your child by phone, even if you're on different schedules or in different time zones. Talking with your child on the phone may not always be easy. Here are some ways to make your conversations more comfortable:
 
Try to call your child frequently, even if there is only time for a short call. And always try to call when you said you would. Choose a time when you and your child will both be relaxed enough to talk to each other. If breakfast is a rushed time, early evening might be a better time to call.
 
Ask your child specific questions. "What did your teacher say about the math project?" is more likely to lead to a conversation than a general question like, "How was school?"
 
Establish a phone schedule. Your child will be excited and ready to talk to you if you tell him ahead of time when you are going to call. This way, he can look forward to the conversation.
For an older child, suggest that he keep a running list of phone topics. Children often forget their news when they get on the phone. By keeping a list, your child will be ready for your conversations and remember to tell you about all of the things going on in his life.
 
Build on past conversations. Remember what you talked about when you last spoke, and follow up on that conversation. If he was excited or worried about an upcoming event, ask him how it went. Keep track of important events in his life.
 
Think about buying your child a speaker phone. This will allow you to have dinner with him, be there as he brushes his teeth, or help him get ready for bed. Talking on a speaker phone is a more natural way to have a conversation than talking into a standard phone receiver.
 
Say "I love you." Above all, being a long-distance parent involves reminding your child as often as possible that you are thinking about him.

Handling emergencies
If you've planned for your child's care and made arrangements for backup care before you leave, your child should be in safe hands in an emergency. But you should also be prepared to come home if your child becomes seriously ill or if something else unexpected happens that requires your attention. It's hard to imagine a business trip so important, for example, that it shouldn't be cut short if your child is hospitalized.

Be sure you have a list of people to call in the event of an emergency -- and that those numbers are with you while you're away. Think about who you'd call if there was no answer when you called home, if your child was too sick to go to school, or if a snowstorm caused the power to go off.

Being prepared for ups and downs
Children don't answer every e-mail from parents, and they don't always want to talk on the phone when parents call. It can hurt when that happens. It can feel as though you're being ignored or rejected. Children can also react the other way, by crying when they hear a parent's voice on the phone and begging you to come home. In fact, you might get one response when you call one day, and the opposite when you next call. Try to take these rejections and emotions in stride and to understand that this is normal behavior for children.
 
Babies and preschoolers go through phases when they are more attached to one parent or another. They may cry for one parent (usually the mother) when she's not home at dinner or at bedtime. They also have a fuzzy understanding of what it means for someone to be away. One minute your child may be in tears thinking you're gone forever and the next, distracted by a story or by play, may not even want to talk if you call.
 
Young school-age children may miss a parent terribly when they allow themselves to focus on the absence. But they also have active lives of their own, with friends, play, and interests that keep them occupied. It's not unusual for a child at this age to be "too busy" to talk when you call. If you're living at a distance after a separation or divorce, the emotions, and your child's interactions with you, can be more complicated. At around age 9 or 10, children of divorced parents may go through a "loyalty crisis," worrying that expression of love or affection for one parent is a betrayal of the other.
 
Teenagers can be hard to communicate with when you're in the room with them. It can be even harder to keep communication going at a distance. This is a stage of development when your child is trying to establish her independence from you, and she may show that by choosing not to talk to you some days, or by answering your questions with the briefest possible responses ("yes," "no," "dunno"). Other days, she may be angry at you for being away or tearful that you're not there to help with a tough homework question.

In order to maintain a relationship with a child over a long distance, you may need to listen to the feelings of pain, rejection, loss, and anger that your child is experiencing. And you may find yourself experiencing the same emotions. But by keeping in close contact even through difficult times, you can maintain a close, loving, and trusting relationship with your child.

Written with the help of Rebecca Dion, M.S.S., L.C.S.W., Q.C.S.W., C.E.A.P. Ms. Dion is regional director of Behavioral Health Residential Services at Northwestern Human Services and is a member of the National Association of Social Workers. She is a past board member of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse.  

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