For many in the army, it is the decision to opt for continuity at school or further education that puts miles between parents and their children. Whatever your circumstances, parenting from a distance can bring additional challenges. Liz Ellwood, AFF regional lead Canada, has been talking to families about their experiences…
The McCulloch family, based in Kenya, reported it was their daughter, Lauren, who asked to go to boarding school as she was fed up with always trying to make new friends. Mum, Kerry, explains how being overseas has been stressful, especially when they need emotional support and a cuddle. “I definitely get mum guilt, but then I remind myself they’re in the best place. It makes it so much easier when you see them with their friends enjoying hobbies and sport.”
Keeping in touch
There’s no perfect formula in terms of communication, and you have to work out a pattern that suits you as a family, regardless of time zones or that overwhelming urge to respond to every text or call.
Army spouse Ruth adds: “Regular communication with school and my children is vitally important. I’m lucky that my girls are very settled, so it’s usually me chasing them for a catch up.”
Whereas Jo, in North Yorkshire, whose children are eight hours’ drive away, says evening calls were a disaster. “Everyone was tired and emotional, and I then wouldn’t sleep fearing the children were sobbing into their pillows, despite matron telling me they were playing with friends happily five minutes after putting the phone down,” she says.
“We decided to try calls after breakfast and what a difference it’s made. The children are happy, relaxed and ready for the day. We get all the news out and say a cheery goodbye.”
Alun, whose children are 370 miles away but in the same country, loves the family WhatsApp group. “It keeps us connected and it comes without the teenage emotional baggage! Over the years we’ve learnt that it’s tougher on the parents, but silence is golden and for us it’s a sure sign that all’s going well.”
Others like the Marima family give house parents an update after a long holiday, so they know to look out for any new habits or concerns. “Without getting along with them, I believe this journey would have been difficult,” says mum Nelly.
The emotional rollercoaster
Putting on a brave face whilst your heart is aching because you can’t be there for a special occasion is a common theme.
“Both children don’t know the heartache felt by parents missing these dates and generally not being there,” admits SSgt Stuart Branch.
Ruth adds: “I’ve found it hard not being able to attend matches and concerts, but other forces parents have been really happy to send photos and videos, which definitely helps.”
When your children are away from home, they’ll need emotional support to manage life’s challenges such as friendship dynamics, exam stresses along with physical and emotional changes. Someone else will have to deal with these tough situations and awkward conversations, but it may be difficult to accept that you might not be there the day that your daughter starts her period or your son is having a really tough time trying to balance his hormones.
COVID-19 has had a huge impact, especially when managing UK and host nation regulations. Distance has magnified things and here at AFF, we’ve seen many of you worried about the effects on your children’s mental health.
Ruth had become used to returning to the UK quite regularly, she explains: “Not being able to reunite the family and being apart for so long isn’t easy; I feel like I’ve been the one ‘on tour’.”
SSgt Branch recalls that when his children arrived back in Canada just hours before the borders closed due to COVID-19, it was a bit of a shock: “Not only did we have to become teachers overnight but having both children with us for a long period of time came with some teething problems; getting used to cleaning up after themselves was initially a cause for some disagreements!”
Parenting from afar can encourage children to gain life skills at an earlier age – packing their own suitcases for starters!
When Nelly asked her children to tell her three things they’ve learned from being away from home, they cited doing things independently, learning about other cultures and time management.
She adds: “The children have gained a lot of life skills, which will prepare them for adulthood. What’s really helped is that even when home has changed, their friendship circles and school have stayed the same.”
For the Shaw family nothing could demonstrate being independent more than being able to navigate Heathrow. “Airports don’t faze the girls in the slightest and travelling with me is boring by comparison,” explains Ruth. “It was something I was concerned about when we moved overseas but the process works well.”
“Airports don’t faze the girls in the slightest and travelling with me is boring by comparison.”
Quality over quantity
Ruth reflects that one of the things she enjoys most is precious holiday time: “Living abroad offers the opportunity for an immersive experience of a different culture. It’s opened my daughters’ eyes to possibilities beyond UK shores by taking away the fear of new environments. They would now happily consider overseas university options when the time comes.”
It doesn’t end there
Even heading off to university as young adults the challenges can continue. Application forms can be tricky, then there are practical things like rent guarantees as many landlords won’t accept an overseas address for parents.
Lindsay in Germany says: “We’ve been lucky as we have family who can provide rent guarantees, but not everyone has this option.”
If you have any questions or concerns about parenting from afar, do contact us via aff.org.uk
Need to know
AFF’s overseas manager, Esther Thomas, highlights some key details to help things run smoothly…
Guardians & trusted friends
The pandemic has highlighted that relying on grandparents and friends isn’t always a viable option. You could
consider paying for a qualified and certified guardian for peace of mind. The UK Boarding School Association can help – boarding.org.uk
Children are sent a National Insurance number automatically in the three months before their 16th birthday if they are living in the UK and a parent is claiming UK Child Benefit. However, if you’re overseas and have opted out of receiving Child Benefit, then this automatic trigger may not occur. If your child is over 15 years and nine months and under 20 and they haven’t received theirs, contact HMRC on 0044 191 203 7010 – they won’t tell you your NI number over the phone but will post it to you.
Bank of mum & dad
For children under the age of 18, a card is a great cash alternative. You can set spending limits and monitor purchases. There are two main options – prepaid and cards that come with children’s bank accounts – each has pros and cons. Note that some can only be set up in person in the UK. Go to moneysavingexpert.com to see what’s available.
Necessities & treats
You can now order period boxes online that contain all the necessities along with some treats and advice to help girls normalise this big step. Shaving boxes follow a similar idea so you can send discreetly to school. Check out apps and online shops to send regular postcards, photos, treats or birthday cakes too.