How to stay connected with your kids as a single parent

This is an article I originally wrote for ReachOut Australia. The edited version can be found on their website here.

I am a divorced dad with five children. When my marriage ended almost ten years ago my ex-wife kept custody of the kids. For the first couple of years the children stayed with me every second weekend until my ex-wife remarried and moved out of Sydney. Suddenly I found myself hundreds of kilometres away from my children and without the financial means to fly or drive the required distance every second weekend to see them. It was a tough time for me, but I learned a lot of tips for communicating with my kids from a distance that work equally well even if you are just around the corner.

When you’re apart.

A lot of single parents worry that by not being there 100% of the time they are damaging their relationship with their teenager. Well, I am here to tell you that it is possible to be a non-custodial parent who sees their children on an irregular basis and still have a positive influence on their lives. My three older boys are living proof. They were teenagers throughout the divorce and while I was always there for them I was not always there with them. They are in their twenties now, living hundreds of kilometres apart, but we talk often and whenever we get together I still get a big old hug and kiss from them. Here’s how to stay in touch when you’re apart.

Technology is your friend.

Phone calls are an obvious method of communication, but they are not the only one. Apps such as Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, FaceTime, Skype and many others, will allow you to keep in touch. Sometimes it will take a combination of apps to stay connected. My youngest talks to me via SMS, Instagram and FaceTime. My oldest three are on Facebook and Messenger. They all have their own preferences and if they seem to be ignoring you on one platform it’s probably because they’d prefer to use another.

Here is a little tip inside a tip for you, try to avoid overdoing it on the social media comments. Everything you say is visible to all of their friends, which they may find embarrassing. Sometimes it is best to talk via a private direct message.

Be patient.

A lot of single parents worry that they may be bugging their teenager when they call, text or message. The hardest part about communicating with your children as a non-custodial parent is that they may take a long time to reply and sometimes not at all. Sometimes they just simply forget. I am still going through this problem. I know my sixteen year old son gets my messages because his sister tells me, but his replies can be days later. To overcome this problem I have found it useful to start a message with a comment about something he is really into then, once I have his attention, I can talk to him about other things. Although this method is relatively successful, it doesn’t always work and sometimes I just have to be patient and wait.

When you’re together.

Here are a few tips for spending time together that will benefit your relationship going forward.

Maintain your dignity.

It doesn’t matter what the reason for the separation is, or how horrible the relationship has become, please try to avoid saying anything nasty about your ex-partner in the presence of your children. Kids do not want to take sides. They love you both and are confused as to why you are no longer together. Making disparaging comments about their other parent will alienate them from you and make it harder to connect.

Find a common ground.

I had four boys before I got my little girl. All of a sudden things went from footballs to Barbies. Just because your child likes different things doesn’t mean you won’t connect. You will however have to put in a little more effort to do the things that they like to do, but it is worth it in the long run.

Avoid the ‘Disneyland Dad’ scenario.

When you do get to see your kids try not to overdo it with treats, presents etc. You are their parent, not their best friend. Bedtime should be the same at your place as at home. Table manners should not be forgotten just because you haven’t seen them in a while. Help them with their homework and don’t leave it for the other parent to do last thing on a Sunday night. I know from experience avoiding the Disneyland Dad scenario is hard, but your children will respond better to you as a parent than a cash machine.

And when you’re alone.

We have all felt that deep sadness when the kids go home. Alone in an empty house is a terrible feeling and the temptation to let yourself go is always there. My only advice here is to take some time to look after yourself.

If you have ever flown on a plane you will remember the safety brief given by the hostess before take-off;

‘If oxygen is required a mask will drop from the ceiling. You must fit your mask first before helping others.’

The reason they say this is to make sure that you are going to be strong enough to help in case of an emergency. The same rule applies at home. When you are feeling low take a walk on the beach or in a park. Wander around a museum or an art gallery. Get some exercise such as the gym or yoga. And while you do these activities reflect on all the wonderful things you did with your teenagers during their visit. This will keep your spirits up which is essential for your wellbeing and remember, a fit happy dad that can kick a footy, go on a picnic, or take them for a bushwalk, is much easier to communicate with.