When kids travel to visit their non-custodial parent: The disconnect



The other day, I took a walk on the beach in the early morning and happened upon a dad and son. The little boy, who appeared to be about four, was frolicking in the waves and splashing water everywhere.

As I approached the scene, I could tell what was going on. I’d seen it so many times before. It was summer visitation between a child and a long-distance, noncustodial parent.

Probably because we live in Florida, which has nice beaches and a lot of fun activities to do with children, we have many parents bring their children here for a fun time. They seem to flood the area during the spring and summer.

This appeared to be a noncustodial parent who had his son visiting for a few weeks. You can usually tell because the parent doesn’t interact much with the child. The parent, like this dad, will have a more or less bored look on his face. Truth be told, the parent probably doesn’t have much of a relationship with his son.

  • He doesn’t have a clue what his son likes to do.
  • He doesn’t know what his son likes to eat.
  • He doesn’t know how to communicate with or talk to his son.
  • He doesn’t have any rituals developed with his child.
  • In fact, his son is really a stranger to him.

In many situations like this, the child has been primed to be excited to visit his daddy. And children being children, he is excited to go to the beach, Disney World, or any child-friendly place where kids are treated special. So for the first few days, the child doesn’t realize the lack of interest. Give it a few days, though, and the child will begin to realize the disconnection. Sadness will set in.

Why the parent-child relationship suffers

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that when two people divorce, and one parent moves a long distance away, the relationship of the child and the noncustodial parent suffers.

Unless the long-distance parent makes a concentrated effort, a parent-child relationship doesn’t develop. They are connected through blood only.

The long-distance parent moves forward with life. Day-to-day activities, work, and probably a new relationship begin to absorb the parent’s attention. The faraway child is never forgotten, but many long-distance parents don’t develop that parent-child relationship the way it should.

Many long-distance parents feel obligated to stay in touch and do the holiday and two-week summer visitation routine. As children grow and become entrenched in their own worlds, the faraway parent is simply that—far away.

How the parent can help develop the relationship

For children to develop a relationship with their parents, it takes

  • Spending time together
  • Doing things together
  • Learning about each other’s likes and dislikes
  • Talking and communicating regularly
  • Showing the children they can depend on the adult to keep them safe
  • Developing time and situations where the child feels protected and secure in the adult’s presence
  • Allowing time to create memories that can live forever in the child’s mind
  • Giving unconditional love

One parent’s success story

Long-distance parents don’t have to stay distant. I’ve seen many continue to be active in their children’s lives. Years ago, in my childcare in Oklahoma, I had three children whose dad lived in Arizona. This man went out of his way to continue the relationship he had with these three children.

One year, at Easter, he surprised them by showing up a day earlier than the kids expected him—and in an Easter bunny costume. Do you have any idea how special that was to his three kids? They knew that their dad went out of his way and out of his comfort zone. This dad had respect from each of his three kids.

I never saw that bored look on his face when his kids were with him. The look on his face was one of pride. It was a look of love. Every so often, I also saw the look of agony and hurt when he had to tell them goodbye again. The kids never saw that look as it passed only between him and me. He kept it together for his kids, but I wonder if many times he let the tears fall as he drove back to Arizona.

This dad and many other long-distance parents work to create memories. The other day, a man told me, “No one can take the memories away.” This man didn’t grow up with his birth father. He grew up with a man who adopted him and treated him like his own son. However, the man had memories from when he was three and four years old and spent time with his birth father’s family. Those memories are etched deeply in his brain.

What you can do to help

  • If you work with single parents, encourage them to make memories.
  • If you know any parents who are long-distance parents, help them learn how to create a relationship with their kids.
  • If you have single parents in your church whose children will visit this summer, make an effort to invite those kids into your summer activities.
  • Along the way, give encouragement to the noncustodial parent.
  • Ask the dad (or the mom) to join the group, so he can see his children interact with other children.
  • Perhaps you could even provide times when the parent and the child could pray or serve together.

What are other suggestions you have to help long-distance parents stay connected to their children?

This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on July 9, 2014.


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