Q: I have been divorced for three years. My ex-husband and I share custody of our young children; the children alternate between our homes on a weekly basis. I am worried that this isn’t a good arrangement for the kids or that things aren’t great at their dad’s house because it is a nightmare every time they come home.
They cry and won’t do what they are supposed to do, they are demanding and clingy, which makes it hard for me to get anything done — I’m not talking about big projects, but just the usual daily stuff that needs doing. It is hard to settle them down and get them into bed, and then they are tired the next day.
I have to do this every week. I tried to talk to my ex-husband about this, but he thinks I am blaming him for the problem and we just end up fighting about it.
Should I be worried about what it happening at their dad’s house? Should I be changing our custody arrangement?
A: Those are difficult questions to answer. If you have reasons (other than your children’s behaviour on return from Dad’s house) to suspect that your children are unsafe or unsuitably cared for at their dad’s house, then you may want to look at your custody arrangement.
There are other reasons for the situation you describe. Before you worry further or head to court for amendments to the custody order, consider this.
Transitions between homes are difficult. Differences between parental homes are significant even when parents are perfectly aligned and co-operative. Likely there are different rules and routines, foods, expectations, toys, sleeping arrangements, energy levels, people, and pets. The two homes likely appear, smell and sound different from each other. Life is different in each home.
Most often, kids do well in both homes, but have a little bit of difficulty when they first arrive in one home or the other. This can be more an indicator of a rough transition than a problem in the other home.
Kids need to shift gears between homes. There are three parts to this: preparing to leave one parent and wrapping up life in that home, making the switch, and reconnecting with the other parent and falling into the rhythm of the other home.
For most kids, this is not an event, but rather a process which can vary in length and intensity. Flexibility, adaptability and resilience help kids make the shift easily. Kids who are not so flexible have more difficulty.
Parents can ease kids through smoother transitions with planning. Plan to welcome kids into a calm environment. Don’t have them jump into chores, errands or race out the door to a swim class as soon as they arrive home. Allow time for them to settle in.
For some kids, that will mean they want to reconnect with their room, toys, friends or games. Other kids will focus on re-attaching to you. These kids will need your attention and your time.
Young children can be whiny and clingy during this time — even if they were perfectly happy before they arrived. Many parents describe this as, “My child comes through the door and falls apart.”
“Falling apart” is one of the ways that kids re-attach to parents. Child cries, parent soothes, child establishes attachment. Plan time to hold, cuddle, wrap in a favourite blanky, read stories, etc. Children with this need will settle sooner if you spend time with them before you resume tending to daily living requirements.
Kids tend to fare better when they know what to expect. Rituals are quite useful. Plan the same welcoming ritual for every return. For example: snuggling and reading; hot chocolate and chatting; pizza night; or family video night. It doesn’t matter what you do, just that your ritual is pleasant and consistent.
Alterations to your schedule at home may be necessary to free up time for smooth transitions. Consider simpler meals and changes to social or recreational activities and chore or work schedules. Lessening sensory stimulation helps to calm stressful situations. Think about lowering the level of light and sound in the home.
Creating a calm space with time to reconnect and shift gears will help ease children through rough transitions.
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