When you’re going through a separation or divorce, it’s often necessary to transition to new living arrangements. To help your kids to get used to the new normal, it’s important that both places feel like “home”. Here are some of the strategies you can employ to reduce your children’s anxiety around having two homes. Although you won’t ever be able to recreate a perfect replica of your former family life, these tips will help you create a new setup that ensures your kids can live happily across two homes after divorce.
Here are 18 tips for easing the transition to living in two homes after divorce.
1. Talk it through
Even though you want to shield your child from the details of your divorce, you’re inevitably going to have to explain the new living plans with them. It can greatly help to get some children’s books on having to live in two homes—there are plenty of good ones on the market designed to help children process what’s happening. Your kids will need to appreciate that they are going to be spending time in two houses and how that will work. They will need reassurance that they are safe and wanted in both homes, and that they’ll be able to continue their usual favourite activities in each home. They are often also worried about the parent who is moving out, and need reassurance that the parent is okay and safely in a new place, which will soon be their second home as well.
2. Create a special space
Parenting experts say it’s important to create a space that belongs exclusively to your child in each home. You may not have space for an entire separate bedroom at each home, but you can always find a corner and add a kids’ couch, tepee cubby or cupboard just for them. If necessary, you can screen off a small space with a room divider. Having their own space is vital so children have somewhere to retreat to process their emotions and regroup.
3. Involve the kids
Let them decorate their space—if it’s a small corner of the home, let them put up posters and photos, perhaps some cute fairy lights, maybe a new set of bedding they have been allowed to pick out. If they have a whole room, they might be even more involved in the decoration, picking out a paint colour or bedroom furniture. Letting your child have choices gives them a small sense of control and ownership over the new normal.
4. Duplicate the basics
The children shouldn’t have to feel like they are visitors each time they go to their other parent’s house. Having some of the same items in both houses will help foster a sense of familiarity as well as help in practical terms. Keep things simpler by having basic items on hand at each house (ie toothbrush, pyjamas, clothes, books, favourite DVDs)—whatever they need to feel comfortable. You don’t want your child having to drag all their belongings to and fro continuously.
5. Have a packing plan
Get your kids into the habit of packing the day before a changeover; this will help crystallise the transition for the child. You can create a packing list together, ensuring you don’t forget items like school textbooks or sport uniforms.
6. Ensure a familiar feeling of home at either house
You might have to share certain favourite items across households, like a special teddy or the only nightlight that your child will sleep with, or a favourite dinosaur dinner plate. There are some items that kids will inevitably want to take with them everywhere they go. You can also make a new home feel familiar by replicating some of the furnishings and décor. It might even be something as simple as burning a familiar scented candle to make a new home feel familiar.
7. Be clear about changeovers
The children will need clarity on when exactly they will see your co-parent and how pickups and drop-offs are to work. Make things visual with a colour-coded calendar at each house, showing exactly when children will be staying where. You can also give them a reminder several days before an upcoming changeover, to help them keep track of things and get ready for the need to adapt.
8. Make transitions smooth and easy
Changeovers can be very traumatic for children. They are made much worse if the parents are emotional or in conflict. It’s a good idea to always drop the children off, rather than have a co-parent come and pick them up and risk interrupting the children in some way and causing friction and stress. If there is too much parental conflict, a third party activity like school or sport can be a good scene for a changeover. One parent simply drops the child at the usual activity, and the other parent picks them up, reversing for return of care. This avoids the parents having to interact, if this is problematic.
9. Have a transition ritual
What this means is allowing children the time and space to adjust whenever they must make the transition between homes. Having a well-worn, pleasant routine will help smooth out the transition. It may involve a favourite meal on repeat, playing board games or having a regular movie night. Creating a transition ritual like this will give your child the chance to resettle into each home, and foster that sense of reliability and certainty that is so important to children.
10. Aim for consistency
Even though the children’s life has changed, some things will stay the same and this can help the kids cope with the overall disruption. Keeping up with organised activities and predictable routines will help maintain a sense of normalcy. Even when each home has a different set of rules and routines, provided the rules remain clear and consistent at each home, the children will be able to adjust and cope.
11. Don’t battle over rules
You don’t have to have exactly the same rules in each household. Trying to get your co-parent to agree to “your rules” can just set the scene for increased conflict. Other than issues around safety, it’s fine to disagree over house rules around food, bedtime, homework, chores and so on. Don’t get into arguments with your ex over rules. Just stay consistent within your own home. Where there are differing rules, simply explain that while in your home, the kids must do things your way and while in your co-parent’s home, the kids must do things the co-parent’s way. You might even consider writing your house rules on whiteboards at each home, to remind kids of expectations. This can also send a subtle signal to children that the parents are still working together as a team.
12. Find some common ground
Similarly, to enhance children’s sense of parents cooperating, if you are able to work it out with your co-parent at all, try to come up with a set of rules that are consistent across both homes.
13. Don’t ask your children to spy or be a messenger
Interrogating your child about what happens in your co-parent’s home is a big no-no, as it only creates pressure and anxiety in your child. Asking your children to effectively spy will also undermine trust between you and your children as well as your co-parent. If you want information, go to the source—don’t involve the children in the adult conflict.
Find a way to communicate directly with your co-parent without trying to make the children act as informants. If you find that the methods you have used to communicate aren’t working, like email or text messaging, consider other tools that keep your communication clear and unemotional, such as shared family calendars.
14. Don’t compete
It may be irksome to hear the children say how wonderful it is at the other parent’s home. But resist any temptation to play one-upmanship over your living situation. After divorce, both parents will likely need to tighten their belts and run the household on a more limited budget. So the last thing you need is to enter a race to spend as much money as you can setting up a fancy new home that you think will appeal more to the kids. It shouldn’t become a competition over who has the better home.
15. Never badmouth your co-parent
You probably already know this one – but it’s worth repeating. Never sound off about your co-parent to the children. This can cause loyalty conflicts, stress and lowered self-esteem in kids. Ensure you interact with your co-parent with civility and a spirit of cooperation.
16. Don’t be guilted into giving in to kids
Due to your divorce, you may well feel guilt about the disruption to your children’s lives. You might be tempted to “make up for it” by letting the kids misbehave more than they usually can get away with. However, don’t let your divorce affect your parental authority, one of the most critical aspects of a healthy parent-child relationship. Continue to impose boundaries and limits and imposing accountability, as you would have before. This will also help the kids feel you are in control of the situation and that life continues as normal.
17. Stay positive
It’s vital that you make efforts to promote your child’s relationship with your co-parent. Fostering a positive bond between your kids and their other parent means respecting your co-parent’s time with them, encouraging the kids to have a good time when at the other parent’s house, and letting them talk about time in their other home freely, without being made to feel guilty for enjoying their time there.
18. Listen to your kids
Although you shouldn’t try to force the children to talk about your divorce, be present and listen if they do want to talk about it. They may have worries over aspects of the transition that you can put to rest. Often, they will mostly want reassurance that both parents still love them, even when you aren’t all living together as a family as before.
Do you need family law advice regarding a parenting matter? Please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400—your first conference is completely free and without obligation.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Family Law.
You might like to read our blog on new ways to resolve co-parenting conflicts.