I’ve been in the UAE for about 10 years. About 2 years ago, I decided to send my wife and kids – aged 5 and 7 – back to India as it was too expensive to keep them here. We talk almost every day, but only for a few minutes and when I went back for the holidays I felt like an outsider.
Everyone is getting on with their lives, my kids don’t want me to parent or scold them – they say it’s because I am usually not around. My wife is also making all the decisions herself – I feel very lonely at home. I came back to the UAE a few days early, saying I had work.
I feel guilty because I won’t see them again for a whole year. But do you have any advice on how to keep my family whole and connected? Or am I doomed to feeling like this?
-The Disconnected Dad
Answered by Dr Mrabet Jihene, Assistant professor and Director of the Office of counselling and disability at the American University in Emirates.
Dear Disconnected Dad,
I can fully understand and feel your distress. Being obliged to live far away from your family is a challenge by itself, especially when you have kids that don't really understand the strain of adult life. They may get confused with our decisions and may consider our absence as abandonment. This is probably why your kids are rejecting you and refuse your parenting.
They might be angry toward you and this is their way to express their feelings. They don't see you during a whole year and even if you talk to them, it's for a short time. They built their daily dynamic without you being around, this is why they have some issues accepting you when you are back for holidays.
You shouldn't take it personally, they are not rejecting you as their father but their coping system is less flexible than ours. Once they have established a daily routine, they will refuse any structural change because it will threaten their safety and their psychological balance. Kids don't react to change like adults do.
Yet this situation is not as hopeless as you may think. There is always a way to fix things and get closer again to your kids.
Here are some tips that could help you strengthen you relationship with your children and affirm your role as a parent.
1. Co-parenting and team work: First of all, you need to coordinate your efforts with your wife. Indeed, co-parenting is much more efficient when it comes to kid's education. You will need to work together and discuss any decision or family’s internal rules before communicating them to your children. Children are very clever and observant. If there is any inconsistency among parent's reactions, they will pick the side that brings more benefits to them.
2. Keep abreast with day-to-day information: Since you are far away from you kids, your wife needs to keep you informed of day-to-day details so that you can go through actualized conversations that matter to them. Your wife should also encourage them to write daily notes to you to share important events while you are planning for a long-time chat (during the weekend for example ).
Consistency of schedule is one of the best keys of success when you are dealing with long-distance parenting. Having regular call phones or video calls will set clear expectations for your kids. You need to be aware that a last-minute change in your daily plan can be quite frustrating for them and that you may face some kind of careless behavior next time you are talking to them. This is their way to show you how much they were affected by your absence. You need to be patient and perseverant. Show them that even though you couldn't talk to them, you know what happened to them and you are thinking about them. Let's imagine, for example, that you missed a call with your son and he wanted to show you that his teacher gave him a star because he behaved well that day in class. What you can do is drawing a star on a piece of paper and pasting a photo of your son right on the middle. Then when you open the video call, show him the picture and tell him how this made you feel proud. Following your kids’ daily routine could help you a lot in improving the quality of your relationship.
3. Surprise moments: Surprise your children with messages or recorded videos while you are trying to pick a gift for them or wishing them a good day. The jet lag could spell, in some cases, a brake on communication. Sending a message that your kids could see in the morning during breakfast will be such a delightful moment and will fill them with joy, confidence and energy.
4. Visualize time: Think with your partner of a strategy to provide visualizing time for your kids. Children don't share our perception about time and they may feel that your absence is endless. Providing them with a clear schedule that they can easily follow will decrease their frustration.
5. Include them in family decisions: Discuss your plans with them and try to arrange for vacation time when you go to visit them.
Once you are with them, if they are misbehaving, avoid screaming at them or scolding them but try to understand why they are reacting like they are and find better strategies to make them learn the right thing to do. As a father, you may be putted in that position of strict and tough parent, but you need to keep on mind that your children need to learn from you, need to be close to you, need to love you and need to not to be afraid of you...
I hope that these pieces of advice will help you to enhance your communication channels with your kids and to get over that stranger position you are feeling.
And remember ... kids grow with love and attention not with strict discipline and fear.
If you have questions that you would like answered by a mental health professional in the UAE, please write in to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, please let us know if you'd rather stay anonymous.
Disclaimer: This blog is a conversation and is not an alternative for treatment. The recommendations and suggestions offered by our panel of doctors are their own and Gulf News will not take any responsibility for the advice they provide.