A few simple strategies can make family time better at both parents’ houses.
Do you still have homework?
What time did you go to bed?
What did you eat this weekend?
What did you do at Daddy’s?
Did Mom take you to get new sneakers?
When you’re divorced or separated and the kids have been with their other parent all week or weekend, it’s tempting to start asking questions the minute they walk in the door.
Missing the kids when they’re gone, feeling unsure about what really goes on at your ex’s house and unresolved issues or feelings around divorce can lead you to push for information. But you could end up pushing your kids away. Transitions, for kids of all ages, can be tricky. Moving between two homes is difficult and can be wearing for children.
Making Transitions Go Smoothly
Therapist Diane Reynolds, director of The Center for Reflective Communities in Los Angeles (www.reflectiveparenting.org), recommends looking at the transition to Mom’s or Dad’s house from the children’s perspective, and slowing things down when they first get home. Imagine having two homes that you move back and forth between. There are likely different rules for each house and different schedules to navigate. You need to bring all of your important things with you each time you transfer to the other house. It’s a lot to think about, and that doesn’t include the emotional side of the story.
“All transitions can be challenging and have an impact on kids,” says Reynolds. “Try to create a two-to-four-hour window for yourself and your children to reconnect when they first come back – without a lot of other stuff going on. If you don’t have to rush off to an activity or get busy with errands, you can make transitioning back home a low-key time, recognizing the texture and tones of the relationship between parent, children and the home.”
With older children, find time to talk about how it feels moving between Mom’s and Dad’s houses. Ask them what would be helpful, and whether there are certain things that seem to get left behind a lot. Take them shopping for favorite shampoo, soap and other items to send along and leave with the other parent if those things aren’t stocked at the other house. You might wish that your ex-spouse had taken care of this, but it’s more important that your children have what they need to feel comfortable. In Reynolds’ practice, she reminds parents that children might not respond immediately to this type of conversation. Kids don’t always want to talk about these feelings, and might not even know the answers right away. Give them time. Invite them to text you when they think of items they need. This helps keep the conversation going without putting them on the spot.
Typically, divorce lawyers aren’t seen as championing children’s specific needs once the final agreement is hammered out. But Pasadena-based family law attorney Mark Baer has written and thought a lot about just this issue. When the kids come back after a night, weekend or week with one parent, he offers up some specific questions and things for the other parent to share. He recommends telling your kids that you’re glad they’re back and that you missed them, and asking if they had a fun time with Mom or Dad.
These comments and questions sound fairly basic and straightforward – unless you’re dealing with a lot of emotion around your divorce. When you have strong feelings toward your ex and difficult issues to hammer out, these feelings can color even seemingly innocent questions and put the kids in the middle. It’s important to get support for yourself from friends, family and even a mental health professional.
Baer stresses that research shows children benefit most from having a strong relationship with both parents in divorce situations. You and your ex have split, but your children are part of both of you. When you check in with your kids after a visit with their other parent, be genuine and interested in what your children have to say. It’s hard, but leave your feelings to the side and deal with them separately. Frame the transition time as a time to reconnect with the kids, not a time to pump them for information. According to Baer, this serves to reassure them that it’s OK to have fun with their other parent and stay connected with both of you.
Dealing With Your Feelings
The initial separation between you and your spouse is a powerful time with feelings such as anger, sadness, shock and fear coming up regularly. As you move through the divorce process, at times it might seem that you’re walking through a minefield. Holidays, birthdays and other special occasions can bring a rush of unexpected feelings. Handling the daily business of parenting with an ex-spouse can also be loaded at times. It’s not hard to fall into the trap of playing out unresolved marriage issues when dealing with parenting and custody arrangements. Taking time to reflect on where you are in this process and talking through feelings goes a long way toward keeping yourself steady, open and available for your children.
Our legal system encourages a win-lose way of looking at court cases, including divorce. In his practice, Baer has seen cases where one parent will block the other from even taking the child to the doctor as an issue of control in the custody agreement. Repeated back-and-forth agreements are sometimes necessary in fine-tuning a custody schedule, but can also be used to escalate a contentious relationship between ex-spouses.
Different parenting styles can also create conflict. You might be more accustomed to setting the schedule and organizing many facets of your children’s lives, and feel unmoored when your ex does things differently. While these differences can sometimes be maddening, you and your ex-spouse can coordinate, even when parenting styles vary. Experts recommend remembering that different parenting styles can meet different needs that children have.
Creating a Routine
John Matsuda has his daughter Sophie on alternating weeks. Since Monday after school is the start of his week with Sophie, he makes sure that dinner on Monday nights is a relaxed time to catch up. When Sophie walks in the door, John has made sure that their home is a consistent place with a routine they share. After being apart for a week, reviewing what happened over the week with friends, school and at her mom’s house is important. Sophie doesn’t always want to share, but John has let her know that he’s interested, whether she had a great week or needs to complain a bit.
Sophie tends to get cranky about packing and unpacking her things. It seems there’s always something she’s forgotten or misplaced. This is common and understandable for kids moving from house to house. John admits that he doesn’t really know how to fix this situation, but over time he’s realized he doesn’t have much control over things that might get misplaced. What he can control is the stable, consistent environment he provides for Sophie when she’s with him. To that end, he cleans the house, makes sure Sophie’s room is in order and has a plan for dinner.
Making the switch back into active parenting after a week off can be tricky. John’s not convinced this is the best schedule for any of them, but agrees that creating a steady, regular transition after the other parent has time with the children allows you to build a re-entry into parenting. Framing the transition this way acknowledges and gives space for your needs, too. Reynolds recommends that parent and children create this kind of routine together. Whether it’s a movie night, shared meal or reading together, she says that having a routine will allow you to come back into active parenting more easily.
Tips for Co-Parenting
While you and your ex might have different parenting styles and routines at each house, experts recommend setting some rules to provide consistency in key areas and keep the focus on what’s best for the children.
Discuss sleep routines. It’s best if bedtimes are consistent in each house. Young children benefit from a nighttime routine that includes common elements such as a bath and reading time. Older children often insist that they need less sleep than they do. A united parental front helps handle these debates.
Account for different screen-time habits. Setting some basic rules about getting homework done first sends a consistent message, even if practices differ.
Have a special backpack that goes back and forth with each child. Santa Monica therapist Diane Reynolds recommends including a small photo album with pictures of all family members. This serves as a touchstone item, emphasizing that even in a divorce situation there is some integration, and that both parents are still loving and active in the children’s lives. For younger children, a transitional object such as a teddy bear, blanket or pacifier is often important and helps at bedtime. Include practical items such as phone chargers and earbuds for older kids.
From time to time, get everyone together to make big decisions. This helps your children feel held by both parents. School, sports and travel are examples of things to talk over. Parents can use these times to help everyone set goals and lay out clear expectations, especially if behavioral issues are a problem.
Deborah Stambler is an L.A. writer and mom of two teenage daughters.