Children and phone calls can be a bit confusing for parents in a two-home family. “Should I be calling every night? I don’t want my kids to think I don’t love them.”
From a parent’s point of view, they may be motivated to call their children on their non-residential overnights to communicate their love and to stay connected. When parents are missing their children or feeling insecure about their connection, these phone calls can be fraught with missed expectations and unsettled emotion.
Let’s look at the value of video chat and phone calls through a developmental and geographic lens.
For very young children, a regularly scheduled video chat can be part of a developmentally appropriate parenting plan to prevent prolonged separation. When video chats or phone calls are implemented to build a secure relationship, children benefit from co-parents working together to mitigate prolonged absence from the non-residential parent.
Similarly, even as children get older, when parents live greater distances from one another (or work schedules are such) that visits and overnights are not feasible, videoconferencing and phone calls provide the next best way to connect parent and child in a predictable way across their two homes. Parents often schedule calls or video chats much the same way they do visits as part of the parenting plan with flexibility to support the child’s extracurricular and academic demands.
And certainly during a prolonged vacation or similar, children benefit from a scheduled call and connection with their non-residential parent. This is for a brief, catch-up to share a few exciting stories and then back into vacation mode.
A well-crafted residential schedule where both parents live in a similar geographic area allows for regular contact through visits or overnights that supports the child’s developmental needs and well-being. When that occurs, regular video chat or phone calls typically are no longer necessary.
In fact when parents call children (what I often refer to as “reaching in” on the other parent’s residential time), the children experience the contact as disruptive, awkward and unnecessary. School-age children are typically not big fans of talking on the phone. They like even less to have the flow of their activities disrupted. And lastly, children actually protect their hearts from the separation they feel from a parent in an emotionally constructive way when following the residential schedule. When a parent calls, the parent may put pressure on that coping strategy in a way that can be disruptive for the child who is healthily mastering the separation without upset.
Think about your kindergartner adjusting to the separation at school, and you keep dropping by the classroom to see if they’re OK. Not helpful, right?
There are other practical matters as well. Daily life rarely allows for regular disruptions and scheduled phone calls. This inserts a time pressure that most families can’t absorb. Children become anxious if they believe they’re disappointing a parent by not being available for the call and residential parents can become irritable when the call further derails normal family flow. None of this benefits the child.
It’s important that children are supported (never forced) to “reach out” to a parent when something special has happened — as the non-residential parent is likely excited to hear good news. It’s also part of most parenting arrangements that the children be allowed contact with their non-residential parent during reasonable hours for a reasonable amount of time. Giving the child the opportunity to self-determine when and how to exercise this option is a perfect place to give them some control. Phone calls should not be a source of disruption or stress.
Children do best when parents confidently support them to rest in to their home with their other parent knowing that their relationship is strong and secure, and that the residential switch will occur in a predictable and timely manner.
The non-residential parent who is receiving calls from a child who wants them to intervene during their non-residential time should involve their co-parent to assist in managing the child’s anxiety or discontent in their own home.
On the other side, parents should not feel compelled to answer their phone just because a child is calling. This sets up an unhealthy expectation that you’re always there in a way that is unrealistic and unnecessary. You are there when it’s important; a social phone call does not rise to that level. Parents often place this expectation on themselves out of divorce guilt rather than healthy parenting. Your children are in good hands! They’re with their other parent and you can let go and allow your co-parent to handle the child’s needs.
The thing we want to guard against is children sensing that they need to take care of a parent emotionally through regular interruptions and phone calls, or that a parent will have “hurt feelings” or feel “rejected” when children are disinterested in phone calls or other forms of communication when they’re away.
I’ve heard parents comment that it’s their “right” to have contact with their child. To which I respond gently, “Are you interested in exercising your rights or doing what’s right for your kiddo?”
There are many hazards in two-home families when parents forget that working together as a strong parenting team is the most important way to secure your child’s future. This includes having confidence that your child will be cared for when they’re in their other home, and you can enjoy your “off-duty” time, attend their activities and track their school events until they transition back to you.
Like all things co-parenting, coming to agreements, respecting each other’s residential / custody time, and allowing children to settle into their two-home life without stress is what matters.