What to do When You Can’t Always be There

We hear it all the time: “I would love to spend more time with my kids but I’m busy working long hours / sharing custody / living interstate / etc.”

These are all legitimate reasons but they cause many parents to spend unending hours feeling guilty and worrying about the ill-effects their family situation could be having on their children.

Well, we don’t want to be unrealistic about things. Children do need and thrive from spending time with adults who care for them. It helps them build resilience, develop secure attachments and trust in their relationships, not to mention the problem-solving, learning and social skills that we can teach them.

But the good news is that quality is better than quantity.

Here are some tips to build a stronger connection with your kids and ensure that the time you do have together is meaningful.

How to Create a Meaningful Connection

1. Children under the age of seven need to be told they are loved over and over again because their brains don’t yet have an understanding of the concept of time. Telling them that “Mummy loves you forever and ever” doesn’t really mean that much. It is better to tell them repeatedly and with meaning. That means looking into their eyes and telling them you love them at times when they are quiet and calm. Avoid only telling them you love them when they have performed well at something or when you are making up with them after an argument. They need to know that your love for them is unconditional and not dependent on their achievements or said as a way to make amends.

2. If you don’t live permanently with your child, ensure that you stay in touch with what is going on at their school by making regular contact with their teacher. If you can’t attend parent-teacher interviews, try to ensure you arrange a phone call or catch up with your child’s teacher via email instead.

3. Ensure you call or skype your child at least once a week. A text message or an email can be used AS WELL AS but not INSTEAD of voice contact. Apart from the difficulty some children may have when reading emails, there is no way the written word can impart the required emotion and feeling.

4. If you live far away from home or will be away for an extended period of time, consider sending recordings of yourself and mailing (or emailing) pictures. It is fine to just show your children things that you get up to in every day life (without boring them by taking numerous pictures of your desk!). Consider recording yourself singing a favourite song or reading them a story – it may be daggy but your kids will love the fact that you are willing to make yourself look silly for them!

5. Collect special items from your child or things that you have accumulated during time spent together – these could include tickets, souvenirs, cards, or pictures. Go through the items together from time to time and discuss your favourite memories.

6. If possible, try having a regular event of activity that you share. If you are far away, this could be a particular TV show that you both agree to watch and can discuss afterwards. Other shared activities can be swimming lessons, soccer practice, going to a show, playing a board game or visiting a favourite coffee shop.

For parents of young children (under 5 years):

  • If you are living far away, lots of photos and videos are very important for children under the age of five. It is much easier than trying to have an extended phone conversation. If you are chatting on the phone, try to have something concrete to talk about, rather than just asking them “What have you been doing?”
  • Remind them of shared activities, such as saying “‘Remember your birthday last year? You had a big green cake and the dog got so excited he nearly knocked it over!”
  • Consider projects that you can work on together over time. This could include gardening, making a scrapbook, or telling a story together. This way, even when you are not together, you can add to the project and show the other person you have been thinking of them by the little contributions you have made. Some of these projects can also work if you are separated by distance – such as telling a story in installments with each of you taking turns to come up with the next part of the story.

For parents of kids aged from 6 to 12 years:

  • If your child has a particular thing they are into, try finding out as much as you can about this topic (yes, even if it is Minecraft!) and show a genuine interest when they talk about it
  • Send coded messages or devise a special language or handshake that only the two of you use.
  • For birthdays and Christmas presents, put some time and effort into your gift selection. If your child is really into Lego Chima, buying them a set of Lego Ninjago is just not quite the same.

For parents of teenagers:

  • Don’t be offended if your teenager wants to spend their school holidays and weekends catching up with friends, working at their part-time job (or even doing homework in some cases!)
  • Frequent phone calls, text messages or visits to their bedroom can feel like an intrusion. Ensure they know you are interested without being nosy by trying to keep a casual tone of voice and bringing up conversations in neutral territory.
  • Remember that conversations with teenagers are a two-way street. Without boring them to death about how stressed you are at work, it’s okay to start to share more with them. Teenagers often like to hear more about how you found things when you were their age.
  • Try to listen without judgment. The minute your language or tone of voice betrays some disapproval is likely to also be the moment they clam up and stop telling you anything.
  • Lastly, although teenagers may pretend to be all grown up, they do sometimes like doing some of the daggy family things like board games, family dinners, and going on family bike rides. They may roll their eyes but secretly enjoy themselves.

Here’s what NOT to do:

  • If you share custody of your children,,,,DON’T ask them to pass on messages to their other parent, DON’T ask them personal questions about your ex-partner
  • DON’T make it the child’s responsibility to initiate contact with you.
  • DON’T make up for less time spent with your children by spoiling them with gifts, or allowing them to do things they wouldn’t normally be allowed to do. Children still need boundaries and rules. If you share custody of your children, having inconsistent rules between the two households, does not make one parent the “good cop” and one parent the “bad cop”, it just leads to confused children (who may end up with behavioural issues).
  • DON’T make plans with your child if you are not sure you can commit to that time. Occasionally, things may come up that mean you might have to reschedule a planned activity, but doing it on a regular basis can lead your child or adolescent to feel that they are not a priority in your life and are an inconvenience.
  • DON’T arrange a special activity with your child if you know your attention will be divided. Continually answering work phone calls  or being distracted by other things when you are supposed to be spending time with your child will give them the impression that you are too busy or distracted to really care about what they are saying or doing.
  • Especially for very young children, avoid asking WHY. Many children aren’t able to give a good answer to this question. If you want to know more information about something, try asking “How did that happen?” or “Is there anything else that happened?”

I hope you find some of these tips helpful.

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