When Custody Changes Unexpectedly

custody changes
Marin Dahl

By Marin Dahl | Apr 13th, 2020

Roughly four months ago, my lawyer received an email. Due to circumstances in his life, my ex had decided that he couldn’t take our child on his usual schedule. In fact, he only wanted him every other weekend and two nights a month.

And – just like that – my life changed. Again.

Women who’ve been through a divorce know what it’s like to have our lives turned topsy turvy, and we’ve learned to roll with it. After several years of legal battles, moving into a new home, getting a degree, and starting over, my son and I had finally settled into a new routine. The existing custody schedule – 50/50 – had been working great. 

I’ll admit that even though I said “yes,” and immediately agreed to take my son full-time, indefinitely, a part of me felt deeply resentful. “Of course, he can run off and have his life, and I have to pick up the pieces,” I vented to a friend in between canceling appointments and shuffling my schedule around. 

Handling my own emotions, and my son’s, to this upheaval, became the key to survival. If you’re dealing with an abrupt custody change, or still adjusting to sharing your time with your children, here’s how I made it work.

Expect Some Rough Times

Children thrive on routine and structure – when they know what to expect in their day, they feel safe. When their routine changes unexpectedly, they act out. It took one day for my kid to storm into his room, slam the door, and refuse to clean up the mess he’d made in the living room.

Now isn’t the time to overhaul your discipline style or change the rules. Instead, reinforce what you’ve been doing. If it wasn’t acceptable before the disruption, it isn’t acceptable now.

Keep the rules static, but establish a new routine as soon as possible. Depending on your child’s age, you can take advantage of chore charts or whiteboards to help. I ordered a chore chart from Amazon and used the blank spaces to fill in his day. From getting up, brushing his teeth, and getting dressed for school, to letting the dog out and unloading the dishwasher, I laid out expectations.

The moment I hung it on the fridge, I saw him relax. Now that he knew what to do and when much of his poor behavior stopped. 

Expect their Behavior to Regress

It’s also not uncommon for kids to regress in behavior to a time when they felt more secure. For a few days, my son often used a whispery voice and baby talk when communicating. The key is to not shame them during this time, just respond calmly with reminders of how to behave.

“Use an adult voice,” I’d say whenever he slipped. Or, “You’re eight, why are you using baby talk?” but with a humorous tone and laughter. I think that it’s okay to establish expectations for their behavior – it goes along with setting boundaries – but avoid making fun of them or being mean.

Younger children may wet the bed or demand more care from you – a child who’s been dressing themselves for months may suddenly demand that you help again. It’s exhausting to perform personal care tasks that you thought you’d moved past, so I recommend doing it once or twice but telling them it’s a limited time offer. Often, showing them that you’ll be there to help just once is enough. They’re reassured in your willingness to care for them.

Expect to Answer some Tough Questions

My son, sadly, just shrugged when I told him he’d be with me full-time going forward. At first, he seemed fine. Until the acting out began, then the baby talk, and then there were a few questions.

“Why can’t Dad see me every week?” or “Why hasn’t he called?” These are the moments that I, like many divorced women, dreaded. There’s a non-disparagement clause in my divorce agreement, so I have to be careful what I say. In this case, follow the KISS acronym, keep it simple, sweetheart.

It’s okay to admit that you don’t know the answer or to shift it back on your ex. “Why don’t you ask him when you see him?” While I don’t advise ignoring the questions, you’re not required to perform emotional labor on your ex’s behalf, nor are you required to lie for them. 

If you’ve had your children in therapy, talk to their therapist about the questions they’ve been asking, and make sure they keep their regular appointments.

Expect to Deal with Your Emotions

Resentment, anger, frustration, yup, it’s all going to come out. Even if you’ve been in therapy for a while, and thought you’d handled the divorce, sudden upheaval like this may bring it all back. Worse, it may trigger some bad memories from your marriage.

How often did you pick up the pieces after an ex’s poor planning, or deal with the fallout from his immaturity? If you initiated the divorce, these might even be some of the reasons that you left him! 

Vent to a friend, journal to let out your emotions, and make your own therapy appointments. But try to keep it from your kids. Snide remarks, offside comments, and angry outbursts won’t go unnoticed. If something does slip out – we’re only human, after all – apologize to your child. “I shouldn’t have said that, I’m sorry,” works well to acknowledge your mistake and move on.

It’s been four months now, and with the coronavirus self-isolation, it’s been even harder. But with some patience, laughter, and a willingness to fall down and get back up again, we’re making it. No matter how overwhelmed you feel right now, you can, too. You’ve got this, Mama.


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