one of us likes to be away from our kids for too long. Even when my kids are just down the street, it can feel like I’ve lost a limb. Yet, long-distance parenting is sometimes unavoidable.
The reasons for a move aren’t as important as what you do afterwards to maintain a strong relationship with your kids from afar. If distance is part of your reality, closeness is still possible.
Keeping a solid connection with your child when you’re a long-distance parent requires both tangible planning and a focus on emotional presence. In this article, I’ll give you seven specific ways to ease the effects of separation on your children’s lives and yours.
Your kids will do best with the long-distance relationship when they can count on hearing from you consistently. Keep the lines of communication open at all times, being careful to factor in any time difference.
Of course, the most obvious way to stay in touch is with regular phone calls. It may not send the best message if you choose to surprise the custodial parent by calling whenever you want. Instead, try your best to stick to a schedule you’ve both agreed on, so you can prioritize these important moments for your child.
Voice calls are great, but don’t forget to mix it up with FaceTime or Skype every now and then. Making eye contact with your kids helps them feel like you’re there with them. You can read each other’s body language and express emotions that are difficult to convey with only words. Being able to see you, even if through a screen, is fundamental to maintaining a strong relationship with your child. Even if you don’t have time for a call, a short video message will mean a lot to them.
A schedule for keeping in touch sounds ideal, but if you’re like me, you may be worried about what to do if things don’t quite go as intended. I’ve had my children ask to call their other parent out of the blue plenty of times, for good or bad reasons: when they lost their favorite stuffed animal, made the basketball team, or forgot a homework assignment at the other house. When your kid is excited, upset, or has big news to share, sometimes it just can’t wait.
The easiest way to avoid conflict about this unpredictability is to acknowledge and prepare for it. Set up a system with your former spouse around unplanned communication. When the kids want to talk at a random time, what’s the procedure for giving the other parent a heads-up?
Decide on a plan you’re both comfortable with for this scenario, as well as for emergencies. For example, if your child has something big to tell you when they’re with the other parent, you may prefer they send you a text and give you 20 minutes to answer or decide to call. Not answering indicates that you’re busy. This way, you won’t have multiple missed calls and risk thinking there’s a serious problem if there isn’t.
Being reachable is one thing, but being emotionally available is even more important. You can achieve this from any distance.
It starts with staying true to your word. Always follow through if you say you’ll be around to chat with your child. Literal availability sets the foundation for emotional availability.
A big change, such as an interstate move, can leave children of any age feeling sensitive. They might be afraid they aren’t going to be as close to you once you’ve left, but hesitant to admit it. Can’t you relate?
The way to address it for you both is to be vulnerable with them. Long-distance parenting plans shouldn’t leave your child feeling worried about abandonment. That word might sound scary, or even ridiculous, because you know you’re not abandoning them. Yet, the feeling can still be very real. Even if you haven’t already been showing up emotionally as well as you’d like until now, you can start building new parenting habits at any moment.
I know this to be true because I've changed how I interact with my own kids and watched how much closer we've become. A few years ago, I was so concerned with the logistics of sending them back and forth and keeping up with school, extracurriculars, and basic household stuff that I dropped the ball on the emotional part. I made the mistake a lot of us parents make: thinking that if our kids have shelter, food, and clothing, they have everything they need. That's far from the truth.
When I started slowing down to ask my kids about their feelings — whether we were on the phone while separated for a couple weeks or in the same room — everything shifted. Even when I felt like I knew the answer to a problem they were having, I stopped trying to fix it. Allowing them to open up and not feel wrong for any of their emotions was the key. My teenager and younger child both open up when I model vulnerability first. We don't always have the answers as parents, and it's OK to say so to our kids. Our attentive presence is what matters.
It’s true that doing this regularly — being someone else’s emotional safety — can be exhausting. However, I’ve seen over the years that this level of effort is so worth it for the long-term benefits your kids will receive. You should know that there might be an adjustment period when you feel a bit emotionally drained, so try to surround yourself with supportive adults as much as possible.
One last thing about being emotionally available: It applies always, not just when your kids are upset. Stay receptive to them and keep judgment at bay in the happy times, too.
Maintaining your phone call schedule and focusing your energy on emotional safety is much easier when you have simple ways to communicate. It’s invaluable for long-distance parents to have a shared digital calendar.
Not only can you use this to keep track of your respective parenting time and calls, but you can easily share other things that are going on in your life or the kids’ lives without having to send and keep track of endless emails or texts. Most modern digital calendars allow you to select which events you share and which ones you keep private, so you won’t have to let your co-parent see your personal schedule.
Of course, a calendar won’t work if you aren’t dedicated to it! Regularly update your calendar to show your co-parent that you’re in favor of smooth communication. Also, take advantage of the full functionality of the calendar: include descriptions, exact start times, and video chat links to avoid confusion. These options allow you to make each event as detailed as you need to without having to contact each other outside the calendar.
If you have older children, they can even be involved in creating their own calendar to share with you. We recommend using a universal calendar that has an app version, such as Google Calendar or iCal. Or, you could opt for an app created just for tracking co-parenting schedules.
Once you’re using your calendar on a regular basis, always double check the times you’ve entered to avoid overbooking yourself or potentially disappointing your children.
This one may be out of your hands. Having had both court-ordered and personally mediated schedules, I understand there can be huge variation in how visitation schedules look. Many parents create a schedule around the school year for convenience, but yours might be completely different if you have little ones or a more flexible work and school situation.
The important thing is that you understand what you’ve agreed to, or what’s expected of you in the eyes of your state’s and county’s family laws (and the ones local to your co-parent). If you have questions about your responsibilities, consult with an attorney or court liaison.
Once everything’s clear in a legal sense, it’s vital to follow the schedule to a T. Think about whether the following factors apply to your situation and take care of them every single time there’s a switch-off between you and the other parent:
Being the long-distance parent means you won’t know what your kids are doing every moment of every day. It’s normal to feel out of the loop. I’m familiar with the empty feeling of not hearing from your kids for several days, or even a week. As badly as you want to be involved in their day-to-day, you’ll be less frustrated if you allow some space for privacy.
Regular communication is crucial, but there’s a limit. So, find some hands-off ways to keep up with what’s going on in your children’s lives. With teens, maybe they’ll be OK with you following their social media profiles (as long as you promise not to leave embarrassing comments, of course!). You can reciprocate by letting your kids follow you, too. That doesn’t mean you have to share everything you’re doing with them. Maintaining your boundaries and theirs at all times will only strengthen your relationship.
If you still feel you’re purposely being left out of something, calmly communicate this to your children and/or former partner before making any assumptions. Chances are, they didn’t intend to exclude you and could’ve just forgotten. Start by giving everyone the benefit of the doubt.
A lot of what we’ve talked about so far has been heavy stuff. Moving away or having to watch your kids leave can be heartbreaking. So it’s important to find opportunities for fun, connection, and laughter. Here are some ideas for doing so:
Even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, these “little things” are actually the big things your children will remember for years to come.
We’ve looked at how to use a calendar for schedules, but there’s another major factor in shared decision-making that applies to most co-parents: financial responsibilities. To maintain your sanity in a long-distance co-parenting arrangement, you’ll need to simplify communication about expenses for the kids.
You already have a lot on your plate juggling child custody requirements, especially now that time sharing involves travel. If you’re dealing with an out-of-state court system and different time zones, you’ll want to keep great records of your attempts at communication. This is particularly true if child support is involved.
Remember how I talked about the importance of planning to avoid unpredictability in the first part of this article? That same advice is helpful if you want to reduce the stress of talking about finances with your co-parent.
You can create a simple system for communicating about all the money details using Onward. The app is dedicated to just that purpose and is set up for the unique needs of co-parents. You won’t have to remember and keep track of shared expenses elsewhere, and you’ll free up your energy so you can really show up for your children in the other ways we talked about.
I hope these suggestions have helped you feel better about your co-parenting circumstances. Just remember — being the physically distanced parent doesn’t have to translate to being disconnected from your child! Using the above techniques, you can help your children thrive in a long-distance parenting arrangement.
Chelsea is a twice-divorced mom of two boys. She is happily single parenting and doing her best to balance two simultaneous co-parenting relationships. Despite the complications, Chelsea can see the beauty in her story and believes healing is possible for the whole family.