I will preface this by saying that there are not, to my knowledge, any studies about the effect of long distance parenting on children. There are studies about the effects of divorce and studies about the effects of having an absent parent. Those are the sorts of studies attorneys bring up in court. However, none of these studies directly study the effect of long distance parenting on a child. What I can give you is my personal experience, having raised a child to adulthood, who from age 2 onward, always had a long distance parent.
Long Distance Parenting at Age 11
Last night, as my son and I sat at the counter nomming strawberries, we were talking about him writing his first words (‘dog’, ‘god’, and ‘no’) and I was able to relate the story to him about his first written words and how proud he was of them. He was 4 when he wrote them and he wrote them in a chat window during internet visitation with me. Now 11, he giggled and asked for more details. in the same way he’s asked about his first steps or for me to tell him about how I met his dad. It’s a memory just like all the rest – even though it happened over internet chat during a time when I couldn’t be there with him.
Seven years ago, I wrote this post about experiencing my son’s firsts via webcam. I’d completely forgotten that I’d blogged about it, as I was having that conversation last night with my son. But in re-reading the post, I remember how ecstatic I was that I got to witness a ‘first’ (and got screen prints!) even though I was far away. I remember how MUCH I needed those small moments to reassure me that I was still connected with him and that our relationship was meaningful.
My son was only 5 at the time. In kindergarten. I remember having that ‘ideal’ picture in my mind of what the perfect long distance situation would be like. He’d look forward to talking to me and doing internet visitation. He’d understand, beyond what kids sometimes understand, that I loved him as much as his then, custodial, dad. We’d share with each other via the means we had on a regular basis. I’d know as much about him as his dad knew. He’d know as much about me as he knew about his dad. He would grow up complete, smart, emotionally stable and secure and he’d be ok. I’d be a good mom, even if I wasn’t right there physically.
But I worried too. I worried that I was wrong. That he wouldn’t “get” how to have a long distance relationship. That he’d feel like I abandoned him. That maybe I was fooling myself and that none of what I did would be enough. That our relationship would be damaged. That HE would be damaged, despite every attempt on my part. And, of course, I worried about the other things that every non custodial parent worries about… that he would love his custodial parent more than me or that we would grow apart.
He’s 11 now. He is currently devouring a new novel in the Warriors series and his writing has much improved past ‘god’, ‘dog’ and ‘no’. He’s been back with me for about 5 years… plenty of time for any ‘damage’ to have shown up. So, although my son isn’t completely grown up yet, I feel like I can finally give some more-than-anecdotal reassurance to long distance parents for the biggest worries I had, based upon my own situation.
Update : Long Distance Parenting at Age 19
My son is 19 now. Officially an adult. He left my home at 17, after graduation, to stay with his dad and then was off to college. He’s successfully killing life right now. He wants an MBA and he’s balancing school, working over his breaks, good health and extracurriculars with the ease that any adult might have. By which I mean that we manage it, even when it’s too much.
He’s been doing lots of exploring who he is and how he came to be the person he is. We have had MANY conversations about his childhood and my parenting and yes, the long distance parenting arrangement. He has, at no point expressed that having a parent long distance is the source of any of his pain or questions. His childhood ‘stuff’ comes from situations completely unrelated to having a parent long distance. His gripes about my parenting are legit gripes about my parenting, not long distance parenting. He has expressed that he wishes we had lived closer together – but then the conversation moves on. It was an aside.
He demonstrates that he has a great relationship with both of us, despite long distance parenting. My son had a rocky few years in his teens where I was pretty sure he might hate me forever. But that passed and we have a solid relationship now. My son also still has a strong relationship with his father. He, his father and I work well together now, as a team, to get his needs met. I am quite sure that his relationship with me, his father and his step mother will shift and change over time, as he forms his own opinions about how his life took shape.
His father and I are both long distance parents now. While my son is an ‘adult’, he still depends upon us quite a bit. As it turns out, there is no end to long distance parenting – just change.
In my experience, a highly qualified no. If you take off and abandon your kid(s), yes. They will likely have adverse emotional damage. But if the only difference is your physical distance and you remain in close contact, have visitation as is possible, and continue to be a supportive parent and loving role model, no.
My son is not damaged by having a long distance parent. He has a positive perspective on what mothers and fathers are and has strong role models in his life, including both parents, step parents and other adults. He has been deemed ‘well adjusted’ by more than one professional.
In my experience, no. Of course, if the custodial parent badmouths or practices other parental alienation, there will be adverse affects. And of course, if your intentions are not good, your kid will figure that out quickly enough. But JUST being at a physical distance with your child shouldn’t cause them to think less of you or damage your relationship – AS LONG AS you continue to take an active role in their life and are open and honest with them.
No, with the caveat that in order to move away and still be a good parent, you must still parent. That means keeping your relationship with them strong, staying super involved in their life, and being part of their support system.
The bottom line is that there is no research on the effect of long distance parenting, only anecdotal evidence from parents like me who have parented a child to adulthood.
Disclaimer : I am not a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist. I can only speak from my own experience and my own situation between me, my son and his dad. I can’t speak to your situation. The purposes of this is simply to give you some person to person reassurance, not to offer proof that stands up in court or any such thing.