With our constant need to be entertained you wouldn’t think we crave predictability and consistency, but we do. We complain about boredom, but we resist change because transitions, and changes to our routines tend to cause us stress.
Now imagine being a child whose parents are divorced…and you have to change households every week...every week you pack up your things, move to a different place, sleep in a different bed, follow different rules and just when you get acclimated, it’s time to pack your things and go back to another place.
If you can’t imagine this, think about why most people prefer two week vacations to one week. On a one-week vacation it usually takes a few days to get settled and to have your body start to relax and forget about all the worries of home. Then you start to enjoy yourself until it’s now a few days from departure and its time to start preparing to return home. So you end up with maybe 3-4 days of calm before the upheaval starts up again.
When I separated from my husband I suggested we do what is called, nesting.
Nesting is the term used when children remain in the family home and the divorced parents alternate between staying at the family home with the children and staying elsewhere. In our family, we structured it similarly to how our previous life was structured. My husband was out of town for work most weeks and would be home on the weekends so when we nested, I stayed in the family home with the kids from Sunday night until Friday afternoon and my ex husband would stay with them in our home from Friday night until Sunday afternoon.
Nesting isn’t for everyone but this is how it benefited my family
Being able to stay in their childhood home, gave the kids one stable thing in their lives while everything else was changing. It gave them an opportunity to gradually get used to the idea of not living with Mom and Dad at the same time.
It gave me a clear understanding of how disruptive, distressing and uprooting it is to have to change homes on a weekly basis. Living out of a suitcase, knowing if I forgot anything I didn’t have the option to go pick it up, and staying in a different place each week was quite stress inducing. It was difficult to feel settled and felt like I didn’t belong…and I was an adult doing this.
Ideally, it would be great if no child had to deal with this, but they do. So our job as parents is to make transitions as smooth as possible but also to teach them how to be flexible and resilient when faced with change. Teaching your child to be flexible and resilient will be the topic for a future post.
When your child leaves for the other parent’s home
1. Give your child a checklist of the items they like to take to their other house.
Having to remember everything they need or want to take with them creates a lot of anxiety for children. When they forget items, it makes the situation even worse. Having a checklist for your children will ease this burden for them.
If your children are small and can’t read yet, provide a checklist with photos of the items they wish to pack. Laminate these checklists so your children can reuse them and wipe their checkmark
Provide them with 2-3 checklists, one for your house, one for their bag that goes between homes, and one for the other parent’s house.
As adults, we have checklists for many areas of our lives so that we don’t forget important tasks and to declutter our mind…give your children the same peace of mind.
2. Allow children to take any items they want back & forth between houses.
Even though your child is going to the home of a parent they love, they still may need a comfort item to go with them. Some need their favorite blanket, some a teddy bear, others like to take a photo of the parent they will be away from. It is imperative you support this so you child can stay connected to what is important to them in times they find distressing.
A word of caution…some parents feel that whatever they have purchased for their child needs to stay in their home, and not be taken to the other parent’s house. This gives the message to the child that nothing truly belongs to them and that all gifts or provisions come with strings attached. A very dangerous precedent to be setting…trust me, you don’t want your child growing up thinking that every interaction with a loved one should be a transaction.
Some families I’ve worked with struggled with this and I saw how the children suffered. Some of the children felt the need to sneak items in their pants that they wanted to take to their other parent’s house and others would experience bad stomach aches when they would forget an item at the other parent’s house. Some children were forced to remember what clothes they wore over to Mom’s house so that they remembered to wear them back to Dad’s house to prevent him from getting angry. Other kids had Mom ask them if they remembered to pack certain items, even before she said hello to them.
3. Send the kids off with smiles & let them know you'll be find while they're gone.
Of course you’ll miss your children but your kids don’t need to be reminded of that. Don’t act like they are going off to war. Keep your goodbye happy and light.
Don’t send them off with a message that you are going to miss them so much that you are going to count the days until they come back. Tell them you hope they have a ton of fun and that you will be busy having some fun too.
Kids need to know that their parents will be okay, so they won’t feel guilty about going to their other parent’s house and won’t feel responsible for your happiness.
4. Exchange off site.
If there is tension or conflict between you and your ex it may be best to exchange the children at a neutral location.
Many families people transition the children after school. They will pick up their child’s bag from the other parent’s house and then go pick the children up from school. That way, the children aren’t caught in the crossfire if there is conflict brewing between the parents.
School also provides a clean break from the parent they are leaving. The kids say goodbye to Mom like every other day they go to school and after school they say hi to Dad, without another goodbye to Mom.
When your child returns to your house:
5. Allow your child time and space to decompress and self-soothe.
As an adult I often need time to acclimate myself to a change of surroundings even if I’ve been there before. Kids are no different. When kids return from the other parent’s house sometimes, they need time to switch gears and remind themselves of where they are. It takes brain power for them to remember what the rules and routines are at your place.
It’s often best to allow your child to do their self-soothing their own way. They may need to spend alone time in their room, play with their pet, watch their favorite TV show, play their favorite game. What’s most important is that they decide and they do it their way.
To understand how important this is to children, think of how much you enjoy coming home to your own bed and getting back to your normal routines after a wonderful vacation. Allow your child to have that experience after each transition.
6. Develop a fun, special routine for transition days.
Kids need calm transitions, but they also benefit from having something to look forward to. Starting new traditions and routines can be healthy too. You and your child can come up with a special activity or meal that you only do on transition days. This is a way to develop another opportunity for you to bond with your child and to create a positive experience for your child that has evolved from the divorce.
Divorce is hard and not a lot of fun.
So take every opportunity to make it easier for yourself and your child.
Your divorce has disrupted their equilibrium
and it's your job to find ways to bring peace and calm back into their world.
Note: The content is this publication is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.