x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Keeping the family together when it is apart

Mind reading Advice for people who spend long periods away from their families.

With regular phone calls, parents who are away can be involved in children's daily lives.
With regular phone calls, parents who are away can be involved in children's daily lives.

Dr Raymond H Hamden is a clinical and forensic psychologist and the director of the Human Relations Institute in Dubai. He has been advising people in the UAE for 18 years, and, in the last five years, on his radio phone-in programme, In the Psychologist's Chair.

Prolonged separation from family is always difficult, but the problems you face depend on your circumstances. Many people here are in their 20s and have moved abroad to pursue their careers. Today's young adults are independent people who are sound in their identity and should already have established emotional stability. Paradoxically, single people who worry about losing touch with parents and siblings when they move abroad can actually end up speaking to their family more than they did before. They tend to seek contact more readily because they don't have a support network in their new location. What might feel like overcompensating for being away can lead to improved communications and understanding between members of the family.

It is one thing to move to a different country when you are single, but quite another for the many people who leave behind a spouse and children. It is important to maintain your relationship as husband and wife. Couples need to focus on children, but they also need to block out as much time as they can, preferably twice a week or more, to have husband and wife time on the telephone. During this time, they should only talk about themselves.

Often, parenting can distract a couple from working on their marriage. A long distance working situation only compounds this. Talk to each other about books you have read, movies you have seen, people you have met, and activities you are involved in. People prefer not to have long distance relationships, but if you work at it, the same kind of communication can exist. Children often feel that the distant parent has abandoned them. They might understand intellectually, but psychologically they might feel that the parent prefers to be at work in another country rather than with them. They can feel rejected and neglected. This is especially true for children younger than eight or nine.

Older children can integrate the knowledge that their mum or dad is away and still loves them, but they still miss their parent very much. Children of this age may act in an antisocial fashion to try to get the parent back or to try to establish more regular communication. Make sure your child understands why their parent has had to go away. Explain the reason that it has to be done, such as economic survival or professional development. It's important, though, that the child does not get the impression that they are responsible or that if it wasn't for them, their parent would not have to go away.

Explain to children that their parent is still involved in their daily life. Just because you are away doesn't mean you have to miss out on this. You can still know what your children wear and how they are doing in school. You can know about any medical issues, spiritual development and recreational activities. With modern communication devices like webcams, you can stay in touch in real time. It's the next best thing to being there.

Long distance family relationships also happen when couples with children move away from their extended family network of grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins. Again, communication is the key. Whether you repatriate or not, being able to stay in touch with your family is important. Take advantage of the phone, email, text messaging and digital photography. You can't rely on trips home to sustain a close relationship between your children and their grandparents and other family members. Holidays may not be long enough to re-establish a relationship. Frequent, casual contact is needed. Encourage children to have weekly sessions with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, where they talk about what happened to them that week, what they did at school, what colour their clothes are - everything.

It's interesting that when people go back home to visit, they focus on family and friends with more undivided attention than before they left. Reunions can bring their own problems, however. Expectations can be too high, resulting in frustration when they are not met, and frustration can become aggression or depression. It's better to have no expectations other than spending time with family. Real family and friends don't have to sit around entertaining each other all the time. Your mission should just be to have open and flexible time together. The opportunity to be together is enough. When you return to your new home, keep the lines of communication open. Distance only refers to physical proximity, it doesn't have to be emotional as well.