One of the most difficult changes for children in divorced families to adjust to is living in two homes. According to Christina McGhee, a leading authority on parenting and divorce and author of Parenting Apart, “shifting back and forth between homes has the potential to create some serious emotional angst for kids”, even for the most well-adjusted child. Where they once had one home, they now have two. The uncertainty and what lies ahead can and often is very distressing. Kids wonder, ‘where will all my stuff go?’ ‘Can I bring things to the other home?’ ‘What will it be like?’ ‘Will I still have the same routine?’
Although these may seem like simple questions, they are not. These are questions that children ask themselves when their parent’s divorce because what they really want to know is what will be different and what will be the same and will they be ok? Needless to say, it can be a very distressing time for them.
The transition time that it takes for a child or children to really settle in, can take from half an hour to several hours. And the transition time from one home to another considers many factors such as the age of the child, the living situation, their relationship with each parent, if this is their ‘primary home’, and the relationship between their parents.
Thus, there are several things that parents can do to make the transition time smoother, allowing for each child to settle into their home, feel comfortable, safe, and shift their focus and mindset from one home to another. And what you as a parent choose to do – or not do – to help them transition is key and critical.
Here are several ways you can help your child or children transition and adjust between two homes.
Each home should have what the child needs to the degree that you are able to do so. For example, each child should have basic necessities at each home. However, clothes, school supplies or a comfort tool (blanket, book, stuffed animal), can move back and forth with them. If you are able to provide their own clothes that are kept at your house, all the better. Whatever makes things easier for them as they are the one traversing back and forth between two homes. Also, if possible, the child should have their own space – whether it be their room (or one they share) or a space (drawer, bin) that is uniquely theirs. And allowing the child to decorate their room or space is key. They should be permitted to pick out their own comforter, or a picture to help personalize their space. Remember, your child or children now have two homes – mom’s and dad’s. Remember, they are not a visitor, it is their home.
If possible, rules in both homes should be similar despite knowing that it’s not always possible. So, if the rules cannot be the same, they should – at the very least – be consistent within each home. Inconsistency creates uncertainty which creates more internal angst. Through consistency, children learn there are different rules in each house as well in different places. They are like little sponges. They can handle the differences as long as they are consistent and reliable as it creates certainty.
Hey,divorce is challenging enough. However, when a parent talks negatively about the other parent, puts them down, demeans their living situation, or puts the child in a ‘loyalty bind’ – meaning asking them to choose between a parent or be a spy for them – this causes significant emotional distress. In short, don’t do it. Feeling distressed over the ex or the divorce? I get it. But seek out your own support system that doesn’t include your child or children. This could be a therapist, coach, clergy, family, or friends. Managing the emotional stuff when the kids are around? Check it at the door.
I know in suggesting this, for many people, this may prove very difficult. If parents are able to meet and discuss co-parenting issues without the children around, great. If not, then hiring a parenting coordinator once a month to help you with this process, all the better. This meeting allows both parents to look at their schedules, academic reports and concerns, or any other concerns and discuss in a safe place with an experienced professional. This is not the place or time to discuss your personal life or your ex’s. Save those moments for your friends and other supportive people. If speaking in person or a parenting coordinator is not an option, then communicate only through email. My suggestion? Write out what you want to say in a Word document, edit it, take the emotion out of it, be solution-focused and then hit the ‘send’ button. Another option? Consider one of the many co-parenting apps out there. They work!
Get in the mindset to update your ex when changes need to be made to the visitation schedule. By not doing this, you send the message that changes in my schedule do not affect my children (not true!). Changes in your job, living condition/arrangements need to be disclosed so your child or children can adjust. There should be no surprises!
It is important to participate in activities with different children. For example, spending one on one time with your child or children is important as is doing things with different children instead of waiting for when all the children are with you. Be consistent with the previous household (when you were married) as much as you can. Children thrive when they are able to maintain a healthy relationship with their parents and spend quality (not necessarily quantity) time with them. Show up. Be present. Put down the phone!
When possible, the distance between mom’s and dad’s should be reasonable. When divorced parents live at a distance, there is more strain due to the long drives. The other upside to living closer is each parent will still be able to participate in their activities (attending, carpooling, parent/teacher meetings, birthday parties) as they did before (if that was the case), easing the distress of children due to all the changes. And minimizing the number of transitions between both homes each week, allows more time for children to settle in, bond with their parent, and settle before they have to get ready for yet another transition to their other home.
Think about how you can best help your child or children transition to being in your home. What brings them comfort? What will help them? How about creating a new routine when they arrive home with you? How about a new tradition? Creating a new transition tradition which includes input from your child or children works wonders. By including them, they will find intrinsic value in it and will learn how to ‘own it.’ This will also help them transition in a healthy and productive way. You can also create a ‘buffer zone’ which is a neutral place like school, restaurants, ice rinks, parks, or any other places which allow your children to transition or ease into the change from one home to another (McGhee).
Water rolls downhill. If you are disrespectful towards your ex (and keeping in mind he/she is the mother/father of your child or children AND, you once loved this person) they will feel the tension and distress. This is not good in any way. Bite your tongue. Journal. Find another (healthier and less destructive way) to manage your feelings while still respecting the other parent (even if you don’t want to).
Again, consistency is key. Cooperating with the other parent is equally critical. I suggest this knowing it can be very challenging! For example, the ability to stick to similar sleep routines between both homes will help keep your children on track. It will also help them adjust and get a good night’s sleep. When parents can cooperate about sleepovers (how often, frequency, when), all the better. When parents can cooperate on many matters, you are a rock star.
Taking care of yourself is key. If you are well rested, happy, and not distracted, your child will feel that. Plain and simple. If you are anxious, they will pick up on that and become anxious as well. Self-care means putting yourself first so you can bring your ‘A’ game to your children. Spending time with family and friends who are supportive and provide you the support you need, will help you manage your emotions and set healthy boundaries. You being calm will help your children be calm because, like I said, water rolls downhill.
I recognize the big ask here is for you and your ex to find ways that help your child or children transition between two homes. I know it is challenging and will at times, feel like a daunting task. But, if each of you focuses on what you each need to do to help them and consistently ask yourself, ‘how can I/we help our children transition and how can I/we put our negative feelings aside and focus on their overall health and well-being so not only do we help them through the divorce, but put them on a path that helps them grow and be their own person? Trust me, it will prove beneficial beyond your wildest thoughts. Because when the focus remains on the overall health and well-being of your child or children and both parents take a proactive approach, their transition between two homes, will eventually feel easier and more manageable.
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