The Art of Communication with a Distant Child

When your child doesn’t live with you — whether it’s because of custody issues, an unfortunate jailing, or any other reason — it can be tough to maintain communication with them. But study after study have shown that even if it’s long-distance, a child that feels connected to their parent will feel — and do! — better then children who have no such relationship. So here are some of the experts’ best tips for maintaining connectivity when your child isn’t on-hand at all times.

The Communication Hierarchy
Human beings communicate about 50% through body language, about 25% through tone of voice, about 15% through positioning, and about 10% through actual words chosen. Therefore, forms of communication that eliminate these elements are inherently worse for communication. If you can’t get in the same room and talk face-to-face, here are the next best options:

  • Live video chat only eliminates positioning, making it the second best option by a large margin.
  • Live audio chat (including simple phone calls) eliminates positioning and body language, making a distant third.
  • Live text chat also eliminates tone of voice, making it one of the worst forms of communication.

But of course these only account for the ‘live’ forms of communication. Interestingly, when you get into asynchronous communication like email, ‘phone tag,’ and written letters, the value of communication changes. It becomes less about the content of the communication (though that does still matter, of course!), and more about the effort put into the communication. Thus:

  • Handwritten letters, particularly fairly long ones, are the most valuable,
  • Then come short handwritten notes or cards, which are about tied with long typed letters (printed out and mailed),
  • A phone message shows you were willing to get into a live conversation, so that gets plenty of credit,
  • Long, high-content emails are next,
  • Followed by e-cards or other creative or effortful online outreach, and
  • A text message, two-line email, or a chat message left for them while they are offline are the least-meaningful forms of connection.

Of course, if you have no particular reason to get in touch with them, you might feel like you have nothing to talk about. Which is why it’s wise (in most cases) to…

Seek Out Their Presence
In today’s e-vironment, almost every kid has some form of presence online, even if it’s only through the other parent’s social media feeds. Particularly if your child is in their teens, check for them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, Tumblr, and any other apps you may hear them mention. Don’t be intrusive! Just follow them quietly and keep up on what’s going on in their lives so you have a little extra basis for understanding them when you do get the chance to talk. Consider it research into who your child is becoming, and keep a few salient (but non-confrontational!) questions handy for the next time a conversation gets stilted or awkward.

Rules for Communication Time
It’s easy — all too easy — to misuse your chance to talk to your child. If you want to connect with them, you have to follow a few basic rules.

  1. It’s all about them. Don’t use this chance to talk smack about the their other parent, or complain about the things in your life. And don’t use this time to introduce other new people in your life, either. Focus on what’s going on in their life, not yours.
  2. Be flexible. If the time you set aside for them happens to be a time that’s not good for their schedule, just be gracious and ask them what a better time would be. Then follow through with them when it would be a better.
  3. Do more than they expect. Set and keep predictable times for calls, video chats, and so on — and then back it up with a surprise letter or card or something. Once or twice a year, do something really special like figure out when it would be a good opportunity, and order an unexpected delivery, be it flowers, a pizza, or something else that shows them you’re paying attention and that you want them to benefit from your presence.


If you can keep open lines of high-value communication open between you and your child, you can keep your relationship strong even when the distance between the two of you is disappointing. The most important part is the effort you put in!

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