When we are young parents cradling a bundle, we can’t imagine that one day that bundle might grow up to the point of moving far away. Certainly not so far away we have to take a flight just to lay eyes on them.
Parenthood is a wonderful but ever stretching journey…
My husband and I have four daughters, two live here in Australia and the older two are settled in Sweden. Australia is my homeland and Sweden is my husband’s homeland.
We are adventurers at heart and that meant we took our kids all over the place. They learnt to carry their own little backpacks. I just didn’t know that all this capability and adventure spirit we trained into them was one day going to be so painful! One time when my oldest flew back to Sweden I had six broken sobbing sessions. On that one day.
We have learned however that you can survive and even stay strong while doing family across continents. There are various strategies and tools we need in our toolkit to make this work that ‘normal’ parents don’t need so much. I will outline them in this article and I hope it is a help and encouragement to you.
The original version of this blogpost has been one of my most popular posts and read in many countries. I wrote it some years back when I was visiting my girls in Sweden pre-virus. These days travelling is more difficult and some long-distance parents don’t see their kids at all. That is why it is time for an article on this topic once again.
How does it happen?! My husband and I constantly meet others who have kids living far away. It may be because they moved around while the kids grew up and the kids got a taste for it. If your kids learn confidence to cross national borders and learn languages, they start to see it like merely moving cities.
Since my husband and I moved between continents while raising our children we did expect our kids to end up all over the globe. However we also know families who raised their kids in one single town and those kids have moved away too!
If you are the parents your role is different to the norm! They can’t pop in for a home cooked meal. Instead, 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 precious plants that need regular watering so they don’t dry out or wilt.
Maybe you are also the kid who lives far away? My husband and I met and fell in love at aged 20 and 21 (coming from opposite ends of the earth, we met when he was backpacking in Australia). Soon after that there was loss forever more for one set of our parents and siblings, as we lived in either his country or mine from then on. It is still going on. The loss of physical proximity is a big thing. Family closeness is an absolute treasure so let’s do what we can with the situation we have. We can be positive and creative.
Effective strategies for parenting across distance.
- Text and phone regularly. It only takes 5 seconds to send some love! This lifestyle is not the same as having a son or daughter living nearby who you see, between spurts of messages. With your far away kid you only have messages and calls, so reach out weekly. Send a sentence or a photo!
My daughter once told me it is also 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 keep connecting. 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.
- 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 mums who never let them 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 effective anti-worry strategies I use:
1. Every day I ask God to keep them safe and I have to leave it to him. He is everywhere (unlike me).
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. A decade later she told me how much she cried after I left.
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 will both feel more connected from photos sent and received. Try not to pressure though, just ask for any old random photos when they think of it.
- 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. Print off some photos of the far away siblings and put them up around the house. Pass on news too, back and forth. The youngest child needs this more than anyone as they had least time with those older ones.
- Fly to where they are. Save up for your next visit (post-C19). I went to Sweden in 2019 for 3 weeks to hang out with the girls. It was a special time of having some fun together. They showed me around and I saw their their every day lives, friends, and workplaces. I helped my oldest daughter sort out her pantry and put all her spices in nice jars. I did it so she had a lasting memory of something we did together.
Just the act of saving up towards a trip strengthens the heart with hope. We also give our daughters a bit of money when they buy tickets to visit us.
- 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 from the garden that smell like home, 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, from 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. It is common to 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 on grief. Mums usually feel it more than Dads, and Dads need to be understanding about this. After my second daughter moved overseas I used to spontaneously weep once a week for months. After a year or two I learned to live with it. I think some part of the heart goes into self protection mode.
- 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 and family/network. If we have some emergency funds we can help if they get in a genuine crisis. To alleviate future relationship strain DO agree on a repayment time frame BEFORE you click transfer on the bank app. We have loaned to our far away kids many times. We prefer this to having kids in crisis overseas.
One thing that may save you a big nightmare is to make sure your kids use travel insurance. I once met a young guy who had foolishly travelled without medical insurance to France and ended up in hospital at the point of death with a ruptured appendix in Paris. The hospital would not operate until his parents sent through the (sizeable) funds for the operation…. Yes, it was insane that he didn’t have insurance. Thankfully his parents had some emergency funds to save his life at that moment. He was paying it back to them.
- 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 we as the 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.
Keep connecting with your far away children. No one else can replace you.