When a family is intact, moving, though difficult, isn’t usually dislocating trauma, but when divorce fractures a family, long-distance parenting is one of the most difficult challenges facing divorced parents and their children.
The problem happens when parents divorce, and one parent becomes a long-distant parent. Unless both parents make a heroic effort, the children pick up the tab for the relocation.
Divorced parents relocate for many reasons, including a new or better job or business opportunity, a job transfer or promotion, a marriage or relationship with someone living in another location, job opportunities for a new partner, moving close to family for support , and, sadly, to get away from a former spouse.
Regardless of the reason, a parent contemplating relocation must understand that relocation jars and jolts the children. Children, who rely on both parents to make good decisions on their behalf, have no choice but to abide by these decisions. When one parent initiates a relocation that relegates the other parent to a long-distance parent, children also become long-distance children. The relationship they have with their distant parent changes, and many children become virtual strangers to the long-distance Dad or Mom. Without effort on the part of both parents, these long-distance parents can become extras without speaking parts in the child’s life.
In long-distance parenting, children face harsh realities as they are uprooted from home turf. These can include:
- The parent-child relationship freezes into formality. Memorable moments that blossom spontaneously in otherwise mundane day-to-day comings vanish when parent and child must schedule time in advance. Setting out to “have fun” is a sure route to boredom. Spontaneity does not require a script, and it is impossible for the long distance parent. The heart-to-heart talks that happen on the drive home from a hockey game or building a tree house become memories of another time. In this, children lose out on having both parents in their cheering section – attending their events, checking in with school and homework, and generally knowing the details of their lives on a daily basis. This is a huge loss for kids.
- Children lose the balance and redundancy that two parents provide. Fathers and mothers provide different perspectives and experiences for their children. Both perspectives are valuable and necessary for children to thrive. When one parent becomes a long-distance parent, he/she tends to have less influence on the child.
- Children frequently drift away from the long-distance parent’s extended family, which for children is yet another significant loss. Grandparents and other relatives often become shadow figures.
- Children typically rack up hundreds of hours of travel time either on the road or in the air. The travel removes them from their friends and upsets daily routines because they may not be able to fully participate in sports or other extracurricular activities that occur on a weekly basis. In this regime, seeing the other parent is a big deal, not a regular part of the daily round.
- Some children feel abandoned by the long distance parent. Others blame themselves that a parent is not there. And others feel responsible and guilty for abandoning a parent by moving away. None of these are healthy reactions for children and may have far-reaching consequences for their adjustment and mental health.
Both parents must work to ensure that long-distance parenting works. Long-distance parenting requires focus, integrity, compassion and a commitment to the parent-child relationship.