Helping Children Feel at Home – in Two Homes

Parent #1 : I’ve been divorced for three years, and in that time my ex-husband and I have worked hard at creating a positive relationship for the sake of our children. While one of our children is happy to spend a weekend each month with his dad, my ten-year-old daughter has always fought spending this time with her father. I’m concerned with forcing her to go when she gets so upset about these visits. However, I want to encourage her to maintain a relationship with her dad and, quite frankly, I need the break that these weekends give me. Can you give me any ideas on how to handle this?

Parent #2 : My children are poorly behaved, angry and “off the wall” whenever they return from visits with my ex. I want them to have a good relationship with their other parent, but I worry about what might be going on in that home that causes them to be like this, and I have difficulty handling my children’s behavior.

Both of these are really common situations experienced by single parents whose ex-spouses have access or joint custody. The most frequent cause of both problems is just the disruption of the children’s lives as they go back and forth. Imagine being the child. Every so often you have to go and live in someone else’s house, away from most of your possessions, your own regular bedroom and bed, and most of your good friends. You know the rules at home, but the adult in charge of that other house has a completely different set of rules and way of doing things; it gets pretty confusing. Things that get you in trouble at home don’t at the other parent’s house, and things that are okay at home get you in trouble at the other place. Just the feel of each place is different : one parent is neat and one is messy; one never watches TV and the other watches it a lot; one stays up late and the other goes to bed early, and so on. If the other parent is very strict, you may need to “let off steam” when you get home. If the other parent is very lenient, you may have difficulty adapting to the custodial parent’s rules when you come back. Maybe one home has too many kids so you never get any attention. Or one home has no kids except you, so there’s no one to play with. And for all kids of separated parents, when you’re at mom’s house, you miss dad, and when you’re at dad’s house, you miss mom.

There are some things that make it especially difficult for you, if you are a child. Your mom or dad asking a lot of nosy questions about the other parent. Your mom or dad putting your other parent down. Having to carry messages between your parents. Your mom or dad loading all his or her problems on you as if you were their best adult friend. A parent having a new boyfriend or girlfriend who insists on acting as if they were your parent and bossing you around. A new half-brother or sister who gets more attention than you. All these things can be very upsetting even if no one is abusing you.

Besides never doing the things in the last paragraph, here are some things that separated parents can do to make it easier for their children to make the transition between their homes :

* If you can afford it, let the child have a room and a set of clothes and toys at each house, so s/he doesn’t have to carry many things back and forth.
* Make an effort to see the child has friends in both neighbourhoods by enrolling him or her in recreational activities where s/he can meet other kids.
* If you can talk with your ex, agree on a few basic rules, such as bedtime, when homework is to be done, and amount of TV allowed. If you can’t talk or can’t agree, at least be consistent within your own home; children can adapt to two sets of rules as long as each is consistent within that home.
* If your child is complaining about having to go to the other parent’s home, take time to ask the child what the problem is (realizing s/he may not know), and listen without judging or making suggestions.
* If you have two or more children, consider sometimes sending one child at a time so that each child will have 1:1 time with each parent.
* Be flexible, and be prepared to change access arrangements as your children grow. At certain ages, boys may need their father more and girls may need their mother more. As children grow older, they often seem to need a more consistent “home base” and have more difficulty going back and forth. Accept that your children’s needs will change over time. Don’t cut the other parent out of their lives, but try to adapt your arrangements to the children’s needs.