Divorce can be a long process, with a lot of complicated feelings, but there’s still a chance to avoid the worst acrimony of the situation, particularly when it comes to raising a child between two separate (but hopefully equal) households. Introducing a child to the new reality of a two-home lifestyle is tricky. And doing so gracefully requires a strong foundation of cooperation between parents who’ve moved their separate ways.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Divorce and Kids
“Co-parenting is hard, especially if you have a contentious relationship with your ex-partner,” says Adam Goodman, an attorney and therapist with Philadelphia’s Council for Relationships, who’s seen what divorce does to families and kids from a number of different perspectives. “But when you choose to co-parent amicably with your ex, you give your children the stability, security, and close relationships with both parents that they need.”
How to Introduce Kids to Their New Second Home
- Co-parent with intent. The marriage may be over, but parental responsibilities aren’t. Think of what the child needs, and work together to achieve it.
- Establish a residential calendar. Let the kids see whose home they are going to be and when. Let them help decorate it or write it into the schedule. It helps them feel in control.
- Agree on the rules, and honor them. Kids need consistency; if both households have similar expectations, it makes it easier. Privileges revoked in one home should extend to the other.
- Always drop off – don’t come to ‘take away.’ Co-parents can help the child pack, remind them when they are leaving for the other parent’s home, and can encourage and foster a good relationship between parent and child.
That doesn’t mean wounded feelings aren’t valid, or should be ignored. But it does mean that the best effort should be made to not only be fair to an ex but to also communicate and provide a healthy relationship model for a child. Major decisions need to be made by both parents, and that needs to be clear to both parents at the beginning. One parent may be designated to communicate primarily with healthcare professionals, but both need to keep one another in the loop.
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Consider establishing a residential calendar, where a child can look to see when they are at either home. It provides predictability and security, which can lower a child’s anxiety. If both parents cooperate to create the calendar (and have a copy in their home), the kids won’t feel like they are choosing one parent over the other.
Parents also have to agree on the same basic set of expectations – kids need to know that the rules are pretty much the same in each house. This includes bedtime, homework, curfews, and TV. Restriction of TV or internet privileges need to be enforced even if the infraction occurred at the child’s other home – kids need to know consequences don’t disappear with a change of location. It might be tempting to try to be the cool parent, but in the long run, that’s not going to help anyone.
That actual location change can be very difficult for children at first – after all, saying hello to one parent also means saying goodbye to the other. So no matter what the personal feelings between parents may be, they need to stay positive about kids staying at the ex’s. Use the calendar to remind the kids when they are transitioning to the other home.
“The parent should help the child pack, and drive the child to the other parent’s house,” advises Goodman. “This gives their ‘stamp of approval’ and removes the child’s feeling of being taken away by the other parent.”
If the co-parenting relationship allows it, parents may even stay for a few minutes to help the kid adjust. If that’s not possible, polite interactions, good manners, and neutral body language can make the transition less awkward for kids.
Keeping regularly-used items – pajamas, toothbrushes, hairbrushes – at each home makes packing easier and can foster a sense of familiarity. Remind children they will have their own bed, their own space, and be with a parent who loves them, no matter which home they are in.
And when the kid returns, parents should take it easy. There may be an adjustment period. A quiet activity like reading together can help make kids comfortable. If they need space, that’s okay. Routine can help make the transition easier – so a special meal or game that first night back makes it easier to find that comfort level.
All of this, of course, is easier said than done. Divorce is personal, and it’s lonely. So when it gets really hard, turn on the Rocky theme, stand back up, and move forward.