Transitioning between homes creates special challenges for children, adolescents and their parents. When children of any age are getting ready to go to the other home to see their other parent, they will likely experience negative feelings, especially during the early years of separation and divorce, during times of conflict between parents, or when the child and parent are having problems or challenges.
The feelings may be anxiety, sadness, excitement, or more often, a combination. However, the extent depends on the parents and what they are willing to do to help their child before and after the transition. While you don’t have any control over what the other parent does, here is what you can do:
- Be consistent and calm
- Have a plan with your child
Develop a routine with your child based what they like to do with you. Some children like to snuggle and talk with you. Some teenagers or kids may want you to sit with them and watch a show or a movie. Some kids may want some alone time first and then want to be with you or vice-versa. Some kids want to play a certain game. Some older teens may want you to cook them something or listen to music. Those rituals may change through the years.
Here’s how you make a plan with your child
Sit down with your child, whether they are four or 15, when you both are together and relaxed, not during a transition.
Ask them if there are specific things they would like to do with you before they leave to go to the other parent’s house. That may be the night before they will be picked up at school by the other parent or when they will be away for multiple days or a holiday. The point is to make sure that each of your children have some special time with you before they leave to go to their other parent’s house. And that they can count on it.
Also ask them what they want and need when they come back to your home. The goal is the same: To have a routine with you that is calming and comforting for them.
If they do not know the answer right away or are hesitant, ask them to think about it and let you know. No pressure. Then check in with them that night or the next day. Often they will volunteer it pretty quickly. If they still seem to be struggling with an idea after a day or so, you might say, “Let’s think of some things we like to do together and experiment. We could try doing this together and see how that works. If it doesn’t, we could try it differently.”
If you will gently work with your child to get it just right for them, they will often tell you what they need, and that is the goal. To meet their needs of being close to you before they leave and reconnecting when they come back to you.
I also recommend when you pick up your child, go somewhere else first before going to your home. Remember that feelings come up during the transition. Having a neutral place, such as a park, where they can move around after a transition can make things go smoother once they get home with you. When they first get to your home, some kids or teenagers may also need to have some time alone in their rooms. This is normal, especially when the two homes are very different, and children need a little time to adjust.
This collaborative agreement with your child, focused on your child’s needs and done consistently by you, will help them to know that they can count on you and that you are doing your part to help them. It will give them a sense of security and structure as they are moving between homes.