Making a go of long-distance parenting
As a parent of three, my main priority, far and above anything else in my life is my family, their happiness, stability and well-being. My children play a large part in that.
I believe all overseas Filipino worker (OFW) parents are no different. But many OFWs I know tell me that their kids at home are too young to fully understand the reason for their working abroad and separation, and they become emotional sometimes. This got me thinking about the reaction of my kids when I tell them that I will be away for a business trip.
None of us would want our kids to grow up harboring ill feelings towards us. We want to develop emotionally-strong kids that can cope with separations.
I have enlisted the wisdom of two professionals, Moppet Gonzales, Managing Director of the Panatag Program of UGAT (Ugnayan at Tulong para sa Malitang Pamilya) Foundation, and psychologist Gilda Garbanzos, to share some good tips.
What is your experience with OFW children? How do they usually feel?
Moppet: The feelings of abandonment and bitterness have surfaced among those OFW children who joined our workshops. From working with over 5,000 OFW children throughout the Philippines, we found that one of the causes of enduring trauma is when the parent leaves ‘in secret’ or with false promises that she or he will be back shortly.
Gilda: One workshop participant related that when he was seven years old, his mother told him, “sandali lang ako. Babalik ako kaagad…hintayin mo ako (I’ll be away only for a while, wait for me).” So he waited at the front gate everyday for weeks. His mother returned after two years. Now a college graduate, he still feels desolate at times. This feeling of being isolated had turned to despair and anger that made him contemplate suicide once. How these kids act out their feelings can have immediate and lifelong emotional consequences—from apathy, rebellious and destructive actions in school, to problems with personal relationships.
How does UGAT get involved?
Moppet: Our first and fundamental intervention with an OFW child is through our Anak workshop, which is a three-step therapy based on the ‘Person-Oriented Approach’ of the American psychologist Carl Rogers.
Gilda: Rogers is known for practicing unconditional positive regard, which is defined as accepting a person without negative judgment of one’s worth.
During an Anak workshop, our participants first undergo catharsis, the process of releasing strong repressed emotions. They are allowed to let out and let go of any pent-up feelings and unresolved issues that weigh heavily on them.
Relieving the internal burden prepares the kids to view and accept things openly and objectively, enabling them to gain a deeper appreciation of the departure of their OFW parent. This usually leads to a change in perspective and a stronger grasp of the realities. By reshaping consciousness, the kids are able to engage more actively in their life choices with due consideration of their situation.
The participants are then ready for self-direction. They are made more conscious of their actions as well as consequences. This allows participants to see their roles in shaping the future and affirms their capability to achieve their goals.
Is there anything OFW parents can do to prevent their child from feeling ‘abandoned’?
Moppet: A shared sense of purpose is a unifying factor. Involve the children in planning for the absence. Make them fully grasp that there will be challenges.
Make a proper and transparent farewell. Know that your children will likely be sad and cry, but you will need to be strong and assure them of your continued love and care across the distance. It is okay for them to see you cry—it signals that you do not really want to be away from them.
Gilda: If you are an OFW, communicate with your family back home as regularly and as frequently as you can. Practice long distance nurturing—be interested and involved in your children’s interests. Material gifts cannot substitute for open communication.
If you are a spouse who stays behind to take care of the children, talk about the parent who left. You need to consciously let your kids learn more about the parent who left. Point out similarities between your kids and their parent, for example— “Daddy likes playing soccer too” or “Daddy (or Mommy) also likes adobo.” This way, the kids will not feel like the missing parent is a stranger.
If you work hard enough, building a good relationship across the distance is possible.
UGAT Foundation is a social apostolate for migrants and their families, founded by Fr. Nilo E. Tanalega, SJ. Its UGAT Program focuses on helping OFWs, their spouses, children and even guardians of children to deal with negative feelings and issues that come with separation. The Center is located in the Ateneo de Manila University campus. For more information, visit www.ugatpanatag.com or call 426-6497.
Patricia Riingen is a wife, mother of three, and the Senior Vice President of Western Union for East and South Asia. For questions and comments, email [email protected]