Divorce is an ugly thing. It tears apart families, causes strife between loved ones, and brings out the worst in us. For the divorced parents, getting back to a place where you can finally communicate and get along with your ex might seem like it will take an eternity. But for children of broken homes, it is all too common that it actually does take a lifetime for them to cope with the separation of their parents. If you thought your divorce was hard on you, try putting yourself in your child’s shoes!
It is pretty common knowledge that most children have a strong tendency to act out in times of divorce, and we all expect this. Generally, we assume that our children will eventually get back to their routines and life will go back to normal, and all that misbehavior will magically disappear. Unfortunately, it never works that way. While it is true that new routines are developed and most of the acting out gets better over time, there always seems to be one area that kids continually struggle with. The transition between homes.
All too often I hear parents say that, sometimes, they dread their child coming back from a visitation with Mom or Dad. Not because they enjoyed their free time or don’t want to see their child of course, but because they know that when they come home their behavior is going to be out of control. This is a problem that seems almost unavoidable and unsolvable to most. Fortunately, I don’t believe in unsolvable problems.
Helping your child transition back home is certainly not something that is going to be achieved overnight, and it’s going to take a lot of patience and understanding from you as well. There are four key things we need to understand to begin solving this problem:
- Communication must be clear
- Rules are not always related
- Comfort items are crucial
- Patience is your new priority
The first step to helping your child transition between homes is an open line of communication with your child’s other parent. This will potentially be the most difficult step to put into action, depending on your relationship with your ex or their willingness to help. Regardless of your situation though, it is of the utmost importance that you do your best with this. If you find yourself dreading the idea of this already, just remember, not only are you doing this for your child’s sake, you are also doing it for your own sanity!
Communicating with your child’s other parent can make the transition process easier for all parties involved. Take some time to discuss the rules they have laid down at their house, and let them know your rules as well. Do your best to come to some sort of consensus on what type of major rules you can both agree on. A few good examples of rules that should cross between both households are:
- Bedtime routines and what time your child goes to bed
- Curfew times
- Times that your child works on homework
- Disciplinary tactics, such as timeouts, being grounded, or privilege losses
While it may be difficult, try not to get too caught up on little things like the use of electronics or how much snack food they eat. These may seem like big things to you, but ultimately, they aren’t going to affect your child’s temperament as much as the crucial rules. There are bound to be rules that are different in both households, and as long as you can get on the same page for some of the important ones, you’re already making more progress than you were before.
As a quick “honorable mention,” it may also be a good idea to enforce any disciplinary action that the other parent has put into action. For instance, if your child gets grounded at Mom or Dad’s house for a week, but they come back to your house the next day, it may be appropriate for you to enforce this grounding as well. Discuss it with your ex, find out what happened and why they thought that action was necessary, and make your own decision on how to move forward. A unified front is always best though.
As mentioned before, you are bound to have rules at your house that are not similar, or even completely contrary to, rules at your child’s other home. This is completely fine! As a matter of fact, it is likely that the majority of your rules are going to be different in some capacity. The important thing here is that your child knows and understands this fact.
You’re probably going to feel like a broken record when trying to get your child to understand this, as this is probably going to be the most difficult notion for your child to understand, depending on their age. Older children are likely to understand this from the start, and very young children may not understand it at all. Either way, you’re bound to hear, “That’s not fair! Dad let’s me do (insert whatever you just told your child no about here) at his house!” To which your reply should always be something as easy as, “Well this isn’t Dad’s house and the rules are different here.” It’s really as simple as that. No need for further explanation, it will only become an argument if you press harder than that.
For younger children, probably between 4-12, it is best to actually sit down and have a conversation with them about this. This conversation should be fairly simple. You can start this off by letting them know that you are aware that there are different rules for them when they are at their other parents house, and let them know that this is okay. Explain to them that it might take some time for them to learn what rules apply at which house, and that you are going to be patient with them and help them remember along the way (we will talk about this in more detail later). Also, make sure to use examples of other places where there are different rules, and tell your child that this situation is no different than when they are at those places. Some great examples of places where rules are probably different for your child are:
- Grandma and Grandpa’s house
- Stores and Restaurants
These, of course, or just typical examples. Come up with your own, and give some examples of exactly which rules are different and why they are different as well. This can go a long way in showing your child how to cope with these differentiating rules.
Bad behavior during transition times isn’t always just about rules. Oftentimes, your child may just be acting out because they miss their mom, dad, siblings, stepparents, pets, etc. that they get to see at the other home. First, be understanding of these feelings. Don’t shrug them off just because it is hard for you to hear that they enjoy being at the other home. Allow your child to talk about these feelings and let them talk about what they miss and why. Sometimes, just letting these feelings out can turn their behavior around instantaneously, especially if you show them that you’re not upset at all by these feelings, and that you understand them completely. You probably miss your mom or dad too right?
Unfortunately, we can’t always be there for our children, or sometimes they refuse to open up to us. This is where comfort items come into play. Find something that is important to them at both houses that they can bring back and forth. This item should be something meaningful that reminds them of their other home, or something that they can be close with when they are really missing their other parent, or even something that allows them to communicate with their other parent. Some good examples of these things could be:
- A special stuffed animal that mom or dad bought them
- An iPad or other messaging device that they can text on
- A picture of their other parent or other family that they can carry around or frame and put next to their bed
There are countless ideas for this one and you know your child best so use your own judgment. The important thing here is to make sure that it is something special to them or to their other household. Finally, make sure you use those communication skills we learned earlier to communicate with your ex about this, so they can be aware of what the item is and why it is important that they don’t forget to send them back with it.
Last, but certainly not least, we come to our most important step, and the one that most parents find the most trying. We must have patience with the expected misbehavior. It is all too common for parents to get easily frustrated with their children when they return from a visitation, and this is completely understandable. We generally expect them to be able to switch from household to household seamlessly, and we expect them to know and understand the changes in rules immediately. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this is almost never the case.
As parents, we absolutely must understand that this is not an easy process for our children. There are so many different factors playing on their emotions when it comes to transitioning households, and we need to embrace this fact and be understanding of it as well. Not allowing your child to have some transition time is only going to make matters worse. In this instance, we need to step up as parents and be as patient as possible, trying though it may be.
Fortunately, we already have a bit of a leg up on this. You’re probably already all too aware that your child IS going to misbehave when they come back from their mom or dad’s house. If you weren’t aware of that, you most likely wouldn’t even be reading this article. At first glance, this may not seem like an advantage, but it absolutely is. Since you are expecting this behavior, you can take some time to prepare yourself for it before your child even comes home. This should allow you to be a little more patient when they finally do act out. As we all know, knowledge is power.
The tough part comes in when you actually need to put this into action. Here are some things we can do to show our patience and, ultimately, ease the transition:
- Allow your child some minor mistakes. For this, you’re going to have to shrug off some things that you would normally not allow. I’m not saying let them get away with anything and everything. Just choose your battles wisely. Don’t pick fights over what they want to wear or if they ate all of their dinner. Allow them a little freedom.
- Continually remind them of the rules, gently. Harkening back to our previous point on this, let them know that you know the rules are different. If they do break a rule, instead of snapping at them or sending them to timeout, calmly discuss it with them. Why did they break that rule? Is it something that they can do at the other house but not here? Ask questions. I promise you’ll get answers that will help you see their point of view.
- Give them some alone time to think about their feelings. If they are being particularly feisty, ask them to go to their room and think about their actions for a little while. Be sure to let them know that they aren’t in trouble, but just that you think they could benefit from some thoughtful silence. Most likely, you’ll be shocked at the change in your child when they decide to come out.
See if you can come up with other ways that might work best for you or your child. As long as you’re being patient with them, it is bound to do some good. As a reference point, I typically find that it takes at least two days for a child to start transitioning back, but it can be more or less. Just be aware of your child’s attitude. If you know your child well enough, it’s usually fairly easy to know if they are acting out because of a transition, or if it is just plain bad behavior.
Remember, these are all just starting points. Once you nail these down (and hopefully notice a change), you can begin to get creative and find other ways to help your child transition. This is bound to be an ongoing battle, but with a little communication, comfort, and patience, we can all solve what we used to see as an unsolvable problem.