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If It's Monday It Must Be Dad's House: Helping Children With Transitions Between Homes

A divorce is stressful for all members of the family in different ways. An ongoing stressor for children is moving between two homes. Young children find it confusing to remember who is picking them up and where they will be when a friend asks them for a Saturday play date. They may worry about Mommy or Daddy being all alone when they go to another home, or they may feel guilty about telling a parent that they left a beloved teddy bear at the other’s home. There are many complex feelings and issues around these transitions, and it is important that parents stay attuned to what their child is saying and what they are showing through their behaviors.

It is important to remember your child’s developmental age and capacity for transitions when moving towards this new phase in his/her life. While research indicates that children can successfully navigate having two homes, there are important considerations in helping your child make this transition along the way. It can help if the “receiving” parent calls the child or children, a day in advance to review any upcoming events and the drop off time and talk about necessary items the child may need to switch homes.

Parents should try to keep their children’s best interests in mind when the kids are moving from house to house. I like to tell parents, “If you love your kids more than you hate your ex – you’ll really do what is best for your kids.”  Evaluate your capacity to communicate with your ex. If there is no effective communication, keep the exchange short and only about what is pertinent for the children. If there is more amiable communication, the person who is receiving the children may come inside the ex-spouse’s home and chat while the children gather last minute necessities. If your children are younger, parents should help them with packing essentials. This time is stressful for your child, who may have concerns about leaving one parent alone. You need to help them, and not add to the stress by having any open conflict between parents.

Some children are not allowed to bring any toys or clothes back and forth between homes. Think about it: Every week you change residences. You have to remember what clothes are you allowed to bring and if your laptop is allowed out of the house.  You are also worried about performing at work and socializing with your friends. This scenario would easily stress out most adults, who have many more coping strategies than children.

As parents, it is your responsibility to handle all of the “stuff” that goes along with transitions. If the transition happens during school, parents need to arrange pick up and drop off of the child’s things. Young children should not have a heavy backpack or suitcase at school with them. Each parent should have a school calendar and a master calendar of the child’s activities. If anything is left behind, do not blame the child for “forgetting.” Do not expect your child to function as a messenger to the other parent.

Remember that transitions can be points of stress for some children and they may exhibit some regressive behaviors. Younger children can be more clinging or fearful. They may have temper tantrums, school problems or self-destructive behaviors. Help your child to understand all the feelings that may be going on as they move from home to home. Children need time to reconnect with each parent after they have experienced a separation – allow them that space to warm up to you. Encourage them to contact the other parent when they need to.  And talk with your child about the schedule to see if he/she likes it.

Ahrons, C. (1994). The Good Divorce: Keeping your family together when your marriage comes apart. New York, NY: Quill.

Elkind, D. (2001). The Hurried Child: Growing up too fast too soon. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

Ricci, I. (1997). Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making two homes for your child.  New York, NY: Fireside Books.

Stahl. P. (2000). Parenting After Divorce: A guide to resolving conflicts and meeting your children’s needs.
Atascadero, CA: Impact Publishers

Linda Bortell, Psy.D.
625 Fair Oaks Ave. Suite 270
South Pasadena, CA 91030
626.799.7941
FAX: 626.441.4893