When we are young parents cradling a bundle in our arms we can’t imagine that one day that bundle might grow to the point of moving far away! Maybe even so far that we have to take a long flight just to lay eyes on them. Maybe even to the other side of the planet. Parenthood is a wonderful but ever stretching journey.
My husband and I have four children and at the current time we have two living with us in Australia (my homeland) and two in Sweden (my husband’s homeland). Our oldest daughter headed back to her childhood country in 2013. Then the second one followed! It is truly hard on my mama-heart to be so far from my girls. One time when my oldest flew back to Sweden I had six deep broken sobbing sessions. On that one day.
I have learned however that you can survive, and you can have a beautiful relationship across distance. There are various strategies to keep the bond and I’m going to tell you what has helped most. If you have far away kids I hope this encourages you. Right now I am visiting our older two daughters in Sweden and it’s a perfect time to write this!
My husband and I constantly meet other parents whose kids moved away once they grew up. Flights are cheap and adventures await, so off they go, and sometimes stay. In our case, we actually expected it to happen since we are from two different countries, and because while we were raising our children we moved as a family across three continents. We lived some time in Sweden, Australia, and China. But we know many people who have lived their whole life in the one place and their kids have also gone off far away. We also know a lot of families who have moved to other countries for work and eventually their kids moved back to their passport country.
As parents, our job is to cheer our kids on for being awesome adventurers and to be intentional in how we stay in contact. Think of these relationships like a precious plant that needs regular watering to avoid drying out or wilting.
My husband and I have also been doing long-distance family life long before our own kids moved away since we are from two different countries. The whole time we have been together (since we were 20 and 21), one of us has always been far away from their beloved family. The loss of proximity is a big thing. Family closeness is an absolute treasure so here come our best tips for staying close as a family spread across distance.
Strategies for parenting across distance.
- Text and phone regularly even when they haven’t contacted you for a while. Send a line or photo a couple of times a week to keep your conversation going. It only takes 5 seconds but it makes a big difference. My daughter (aged 22) told me it is important to sometimes ask straight out ‘how are you?’, especially if you haven’t heard from them in a while. Sometimes it turns into a chat and sometimes it is just messages that go back and forth through the days when each of you has time. Be relaxed and cheery, no pressure for instant replies. The main thing is regular texts. This lifestyle is not the same as having a son or daughter living in your same city who you see, between spurts of messages. With your far away kid you only have messages and calls, so reach out weekly. Both your lives will be richer. And remember: the older generation should always be reaching out to the younger generation. I also tell my kids I am praying for them every day. So they know I am thinking of them even when we don’t connect. If you are a praying parent ask them what you can be praying about.
- THREE VITAL THINGS. Praise. Encourage. Ask. Who can resist words of praise and encouragement or someone who is truly interested in their life – asking about their job / friends / flatmates / study. If you want to be close, ask questions, and, LISTEN to details. Like names of their friends, or details about that new barista job. Be positive. Keep any negative thoughts to yourself unless it is a crucial topic e.g. ‘should I take a big loan even though my income is tiny?’! Since you can’t hug them or have them in your home your parenting is a bit one dimensional. You must do everything through words, so positivity and verbal warmth (use emojis too) is crucial. Of course there are periods when you have to share your hard times with them, but as much as possible let communications be relaxed and warm. Be careful not to be intense, judgemental or bossy as it is quite easy for your far-away kids to pull away or avoid you (or block you completely) so you must be very self controlled. Respect that they are very capable people to live overseas and just love them where they are at. Just be their greatest fan. If you can do this, they will ask you for advice when they need it, or you may get to speak gently into their life when you get an opening occasionally. But be self controlled. Think about texts carefully before pressing send. And say the words ‘I love you’ often. 💕
- Worry. When our kids live really far away, the biggest thing that affects us negatively, and affects our relationship with them negatively, is worry. Our worry, not theirs😊 When my kids were young I was one of those mum’s who never let them go out of my sight-line at the play park, or take the dog for a walk further than around the block. And yet I usually sleep at night despite two daughters on the other side of the planet. It has been a stretching, breaking, long process to get to this point so don’t expect it to come overnight. However here are the four things that massively help me. 1. I talk to God every single day about them and ask Him to protect them. I’m in Sweden right now and they just told me some hairy stories of near misses with danger the last years. I knew at that moment God had answered my constant requests to protect them. It hit me- I was very likely praying on that very day. I am able to hand them to God daily as I know He is right there (unlike me) and holds the whole universe in place as well as lovingly making sure every ladybug and sparrow has food. 2. Big effort in self discipline over my thought life. I have to remind myself they are smart and capable, and I was at that age too. I have to let go. My own mum saw me off on an adventure to Sweden at age 21 on a one-way ticket and said ‘if you are happy I am happy’. The best words she ever said to me. Then she went home and wept but I didn’t know until years later. 3. Be busy with your own positive activities and focus on strengthening your relationship with your spouse. Have fun with your other kids and your friends too. And maybe get a dog. Dog are always there for us and always ready for a hug. 4. Talk and process with spouse and friends when you feel sad. There are few things in life that take so much courage as being separated by great distance from our kids. I experience a constant low level grieving. We need and deserve self care❤️
- Time zones can be managed. Get into the habit of just writing any old time and they can then reply any time/day that they can. If I wake in the night and don’t have to work the next day I will often touch base with my far away kids. Some vital conversations have happened at 3 am my time when I don’t have any distractions.
- Send photos of everyday things. Some days just send a photo. Like the dish you just cooked or their little sister doing some homework, or your dog having a nap. It will help them feel much more connected. Ask for photos of their everyday life too. You as a parent will feel way more connected from this.
- Build a sense of tribe. Set up a family chat group on e.g. facebook messenger. Make sure everyone in the family is in it as it’s the only place you will all intersect. Let the far away kids choose the platform so they will use it. Remind younger siblings to read and write in the group. Put up photos in the house of the far away kids and pass on news back and forth. Our kids will outlive us so lets encourage them to stay close.
- Fly to where they are. Save up and fly to visit your kids. I am in Sweden right now for 3 weeks hanging out with our two older daughters and we are having so much fun. They have really been in need of some close up mum-time and mum-coaching. And I am getting to see their every day lives, friends, boyfriend, home, and job places. Yesterday I helped my oldest daughter sort out her pantry. It will be a nice memory for her when she looks in there. Having this trip booked made me so excited for months and it will mean we are much more connected for the rest of this year. We have also told our daughters that any time they book to fly to us we will give them $300 towards their tickets to help.
- Send the odd thing by snail-mail. My daughters say this is really important. Occasionally send them a surprise card or letter with HANDWRITING from family members, and a couple of tangible things from home like a couple of leaves the garden that smell like home-country, or a photo. Be creative.
- How can you take them out for coffee? Send $20 to their bank account and tell them to go for a coffee and cake at their favourite cafe on you. They can think of you while doing that and feel loved.
- Video call / facetime. Oh how vital is face to face! It is surprisingly 20 times better than just a text or voice call. Also, while you facetime ask your son/daughter to walk around their home / work / study space and SHOW YOU. They will be thrilled you want to see it, and you will feel so much more connected. Show them YOUR home too and any changes and get the family and dog in the picture.
- Accept that you have grief. One can experience low level grieving due to loss of everyday life with the children that live far away. It is an actual grief and it can be good to read up of grief. When it gets too hard it is time to book a flight to visit. Mums feel it more than Dads usually and Dads need to be understanding about this.
- Have emergency funds. Young adults are not fully fledged adults yet. All our kids have emergencies but the crisis of our far away kids may be more serious due to distance from homeland/among family/network. If we have some emergency funds we are not going to collapse if they need a loan to get out of a scrape. There are times to say no as well, but I am talking about genuine crisis. We have done many loans to our kids in hard periods and often they were paid back fast but sometimes we had to be tough too. There always needs to be clear, pre-agreed upon terms even if its a quick conversation, and we need to keep records. One thing that may save you a nightmare is to really make sure your kids use travel insurance. Last week on a flight I met a really intelligent, organised, thoughtful 25 year old Aussie guy who has been living in various countries for 5 years. I asked him what has meant the most to him as far as feeling connected to his parents back home. The answer was so different to what I expected. It was actually a loan of money in a crisis. He told me he was recently dying in a hospital bed with ruptured appendix in Paris. He also did not have travel insurance… He said that his parents were not happy at first but lent him the money to get through the crisis and this meant more to him than anything ever. His parents also flew to be by his bedside in Paris. The relationship hadn’t been good for some years but this was a breakthrough time. Yes, it was crazy that he didn’t have insurance. But yes it is also good that his parents had some emergency funds to save their sons life in that moment and also go be with him.
- Last but not least: FORGIVE FORGIVE FORGIVE and ASK FORGIVENESS. Any time there is a conflict, text that big kid and say sorry and forgive them. Move on quickly and let this become the nature of your relationship. It will then grow to be a robust relationship that survives the distance. Sometimes my girls and I annoy each other in a text and we just wait a few days and then start a new topic. We have an unsaid understanding that we won’t let irritations get in the way of our relationship and regular communication. However as in all parenting we as the parent, the bigger older person need to set the example. Sometimes we have to be very humble and apologise and reclaim that beautiful relationship. ❤️ We don’t need anything more than the distance between us.
Do share in the comments any things you have found helpful for keeping your relationship strong.
In the future I will write an article about Grandparenting by distance. I am not at that stage yet but my kids have always been living that situation with their own Grandparents and she has managed to create an astoundingly close relationship with them.