dad smiling at daughter

Written by Matthew Green. *Not actual picture of author.

I’m 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, they stayed with me every second weekend. Then, their mother remarried and moved out of Sydney. Suddenly, I was some distance from my children and without the financial means to fly or drive to see them twice a month. It was a tough time, but I learnt some ways to stay connected with my kids, whether they were hundreds of kilometres away or just around the corner.

When you’re apart…

A lot of single parents worry that if they’re not available to their kids 24/7, this will damage their relationship. Not so. It’s possible for a non-custodial parent who sees their children on an irregular basis to still have a positive influence on their lives. My three older boys were teenagers throughout the divorce and while I wasn’t always able to be there with them, I was always there for them. They’re in their twenties now. 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

Apps such as Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, FaceTime, Skype, and many others, allow you to keep in touch when a phone call doesn’t work. My youngest talks to me via SMS, Instagram and FaceTime. My oldest three are on Facebook and Messenger. If they seem to be ignoring you on one platform, it’s probably because they’d prefer to use another.

Pro tip: Using social to communicate doesn’t mean overdoing it on the comments. Everything you say is visible to their friends, which they may find embarrassing. Sometimes it’s best to talk via a private direct message. Check out this video for more.

Be patient

A lot of non-custodial parents worry that they may be bugging their teenager when trying to stay connected. Their child may take a long time to reply, or may not reply at all. (Sometimes they simply forget.) I still have this problem. I know my 16-year-old gets my messages, because his sister tells me he does, but he can take days to respond. I’ve found it useful to start a message with a comment about something he’s really into. Then, once I have his attention, I can talk to him about other things. Even this method doesn’t always work, though, and I just have to be patient and wait.

When you’re together…

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

Maintain your dignity

Whatever the reason for the breakup of your family, try to avoid saying anything nasty about your ex-partner in the presence of your children. Kids don’t 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 had a little girl. Suddenly, things went from footballs to Barbies. You and your children may like different things, but it doesn’t mean you can’t connect. You may have to make more of an effort to do the things they like to do, but you’ll find it’s 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 and presents. You’re their parent, not their best friend. Bedtime should be the same at your place as it was before. Table manners shouldn’t be forgotten just because you haven’t seen them in a while. Help them with their homework. (Don’t leave it for the other parent to do last thing on Sunday night.) I know from experience that avoiding the Disneyland Dad scenario is hard, but they’ll respond better to you as a parent than as a cash machine.

And when you’re alone.

We have all felt that deep sadness when the kids go home. Being alone in an empty house can feel terribly lonely and you may be tempted to wallow in that emotion a bit and let yourself go. My advice is to take some time to look after yourself.

Most of us are familiar with the safety brief we hear before our plane takes off: ‘If oxygen is required, a mask will drop from the ceiling. You must fit your mask first before helping others.’ This is to make sure that you’re able to function well and help in case of an emergency. The same rule applies at home. Here are a few suggestions for functioning better when you’re feeling low:

  • Take a walk on the beach or in a park.
  • Wander around a museum or an art gallery.
  • Get some exercise (go for a run, visit the gym or do some yoga).
  • Connect with others (join a club/group/meetup, or make a date to catch up with friends).

While you’re doing these activities, reflect on the time you spent with your teenagers during their visit. Think about the things you did together and the funny conversations you had. This will keep your spirits up, which is essential for your wellbeing. Remember: your kids will find you much easier to communicate with if you’re fit and happy, and able to kick a footy with them, or take them on a picnic or for a bushwalk.

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