Divorce & Long Distance Parenting: How to Cope With Being Away

"The important thing is to give the child something to look forward to that is unfailing."

by Chris Illuminati
An illustrated parent's hand holding a phone while talking with his son on a phone video call

Sergeant First Class Troy Johnson is in his 22nd year with the U.S. Army, the last 13 of which he’s spent as a trainer and instructor. In March 2016, the New Jersey-based father had a third child on the way when he received his newest marching orders: A training mission in El Paso, Texas, hundreds of miles away from his wife, kids, and newborn son.

That December, Johnson kissed his family goodbye and embarked on a year-long mission that didn’t allow much time to return home and visit. He did his best to stay in touch, including video chatting most nights and texting his oldest. But the distance and time zone issues didn’t make life easy.

“I missed my son’s first Christmas,” Johnson recalls. “and when I came home on leave, and even when I came home for good, he was very hesitant toward me. He only knew me from video chat. He freaked out for weeks about me being there, in the flesh, and it took some time for him to get comfortable being alone with me.”

There are many reasons a father might not live with or near their children. Whether it’s the fallout from a divorce, a separation, a temporary absence because of work, deployment in the military, or incarceration, a lot of dads spend more time away than near their children.

It’s incredibly difficult to spend extended amounts of time away from your kids. But, with some guidance and out of the box thinking, these “Live-Away Dads,” to use a term coined by psychotherapist and author William C. Klatte, can still have a considerable influence over their children.

“Regardless of the circumstances surrounding dad’s absence, a bond with their child will be unbreakable when it includes special things that are unique to their relationship,” explains Dr. Racine Henry, a licensed family therapist. “Whether it’s an inside joke, special names for one another, a story that you both write together line by line whenever you speak, the important thing is to give the child something to look forward to that is unfailing.”

Long distance dads and fathers should keep the following tips in mind to make the distance and time away seem shorter for both their children and themselves..

Share Your Work World With Your Kids

“When a parent spends time away from a child, the level of impact is determined by the length of time away and the reason for being away,” explains Dr. Henry. “If a child is old enough and able to comprehend the situation, it is always best to be honest so that there isn’t added trauma down the line.”

Gabriella Ribeiro, an entrepreneur and owner of The Mogul Mom, goes so far as to explain exactly why she’ll be away from home and what she’ll be doing while she’s gone. “I involve my daughter in my day to day business by explaining exactly what I do. This helps make it easier and more understandable to her why I need to travel and to be away and with whom I’m meeting,” she says. “I make it all very familiar to her.”

Embrace Video Chat As Well As More Creative Options

FaceTime, Skype and other video calling services are the obvious first choice for fathers who live far from their kids. And they should be because they’re an excellent way of getting as close to face-to-face time as possible. But other options are available, especially when time differences get in the way.

“When I was traveling weekly, at least one round-trip flight a week, I made a simple promise to my kids,” shares Patrick Riccards, the Chief Communications and Strategy Officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, who would spend weeks away from his family. “On each trip, I would record at least one video for them. Each night, they knew they could see me acting goofy. And it was on the social media app that they were allowed to have, as they were too young for Facebook or Instagram.”

Remember the Small Stuff

No matter how you communicate with your children, it’s essential to keep track of the specifics in your kid’s world, particularly the people and events in their life. Dr. Henry implores Live-Away dads to take note of even the tiniest pieces of information for future conversations.

“Even if you can’t be there in person, remembering to ask about their soccer tournament or the name of their best friend goes a long way to show the child that their dad sees them as a priority and cares about what is going on for them.”

If remembering the small stuff is a chore, keep a notebook of pertinent information at the ready every time you’re about to talk on the phone or FaceTime.

Be Reliable

It’s essential to keep promises with your children. But Dr. Henry implores that Live-Away dads need be especially aware of sticking to their word in terms of the times and days of contact with their kids.

“A dad can stay present and connected when away for a lengthy amount of time by being extremely reliable with the communication that is possible,” he says. “This means not breaking phone call dates and responding to letters, texts, and emails as promptly as possible.”

With such reliability, the kids will grow to depend on their dad and see him as a consistent part of their life. When the communication is haphazard or unpredictable, warns Dr. Henry, so is the bond.

Create Your Own Rituals

Maybe you return with a touristy shirt or Teddy bear from all the places you were sent. Maybe you bring back buttons. Whatever it is, it’s important to show your kids that you were always thinking of them when you were gone.

“I would always — always — bring back the soaps and shampoos from the hotels,” admits Karl Smith, a father of two who spent an extensive amount of time on the road for work. “The shampoos became a big thing for her. She loved to collect and compare the bottles. Any time she spent time away from home — a friend’s house, camp, anywhere — it’s the first thing she’d pack.”

Avoid Guilt Gifts

Being away for a long time often makes parents feel the need to go all out and showering kids with guilt gifts. “Dads have to be careful not to create the expectation that every day together is going to involve some outing or gift,” warns Dr. Henry. “The time shared should be about creating memories together.”

Make the Time Together Memorable

Finally, Live-Away dads should make the most of the time home with the kids — it’s as simple and as difficult as that. Keeping the bond strong enough to withstand the time spent away should be priority number one.