It’s been about 2 months since the start of the new custody arrangement. Per the agreement, the children spend 2 nights in their father’s home, then transition to my home for either 2 or 3 nights (depending on the week), and then back to dad’s for 2 day, etc. This is a very complicated arrangement, and I am very proud of my children, as they have been extremely flexible with their dad and I, and have gone above and beyond to help ease the change. I am a very lucky mom, and feel blessed to have such wonderful kids. They have been amazing throughout, and if not for their efforts, this arrangement would not be possible.
One of the toughest issues that we have had to deal with since the start of the custody split, has been the difficulties that come with the children’s transition, as they move from house to house. My oldest Diji (17), suffers from ADD so transitions for him tend to bring on a lot of anxiety and stress, as he tries to keep himself organized with regard to school and his extracurricular activities. With every transition he becomes irritable and moody. He also has trouble focusing, sleeping, and sometimes eating. He’s worked very hard through the years to manage his ADD without medication, instead relying on what he’s learned through cognitive-behavioral therapy. His grades since the start of the custody arrangement have suffered, but I am noticing that 2 months into the transition it is getting easier for him to get re-focused in a much shorter period of time, than it did in the beginning. I am hoping that with continued support and encouragement, he will be able to take even more control of the anxiety he feels every time he has a change of environment.
My two middle children, “Doodle” (14), and “Desibelle” (12), seem to be coping the best. They are both very easy-going kids that pretty much go with the flow. I believe that this personality trait is the reason they are doing so well, considering the difficulty of this arrangement. I am very proud of the two of them as they have really stepped up, and are doing a great job at staying organized and planning ahead. Their grades are right where they should be, and for the most part they seem to be doing well.
The youngest, “Bugsy” (5), seems to have the toughest time making the transition back into our home. His first day back is always the toughest and involves a lot of tantrums, crying, whining, and behavior that for the most part he outgrew long ago. When he first returns home he is always happy to see us, but within a few minutes he reverts back to a younger version of himself. Suddenly I have a clingy, whiny 5-year-old who wants to sit on my lap and be cuddled the entire time. During this period he becomes difficult to please, and it seems like everything we say or do leads to a meltdown. At the same time he’ll become defiant and will have trouble listening and following directions. This type of behavior will continue for the rest of the day, and then by morning his temperament and behavior will revert back to normal. It is very difficult to handle him during his first day back, as a lot of the behaviors that he exhibits are behaviors which he knows are unacceptable, yet he seems to not be able to control. It’s obvious to all of us that this behavior is completely related to the transition. I have a strong feeling that “Bugsy”, like his older brother, may also be suffering from anxiety that is intensified by the custody arrangement. Not only does he struggle when returning home to us, but then again when it’s time to pack up and leave to his dad’s home. He cries, begs, and pleads to stay home with us. When all that fails and he realizes that he has no choice but to go, he then resorts back to the behaviors he exhibited his first day home…crying…whining…tantrums…defiance…anger. It’s very tough to watch and handle him, as it seems that no matter what we do to correct or redirect him only escalates his frustration.
Initially these issues with my oldest and youngest son’s caught me off guard. Their behavior and reaction to the change was something that I did not expect. For some reason I was under the impression that their transition back into our home would be smooth, because I assumed they would be happy to be back home. I didn’t realize the difficulty and struggle they would feel coming home to me, the person whom they have lived with, full-time for most of their lives. Those first few weeks taught me that to make this new lifestyle easier for them (key…easier for THEM, because they are the ones most affected), I needed to let go of what I considered to be “normal” for us, and instead start a new way of thinking and doing things that would be more in line with our new life and the needs of my children. Here are a few tips that have helped my children and I cope with the house hold transition:
TIP #1: Allow Your Children Time To Transition
The first few times that the children returned from their fathers I really pushed them to return to “business as usual”, meaning right back into their regular routine…just as if they never left. However, it wasn’t long before it became clear that the kids were having a tough time jumping right into their every day schedules. For the older children, when I pushed them into their routine, they became angry and resentful; for “Bugsy”, well in one word…tantrum! It became clear that the kids needed to use their first day back to re-acclimate back into our home. They needed time to sort out and readjust themselves into the “new environment”. This is something that I never expected, but after much thought I realized, why wouldn’t they need time to sort themselves out after coming home. Think about it, even as adults when we return home after being away several nights, doesn’t it take us a couple of hours or even a day before we get can ourselves, mentally and physically, back into the “every day”? So why would it be different for a child?
Instead I now allow my children one day to get themselves sorted out and back on their schedules. Amazingly, the three older kids work this out on their own, and typically resume what I call “normalcy” all on their own without much encouragement from me. I just step back and let them figure it out, and they always do. For the 5-year-old it’s a little tougher as he’s not yet old enough to regulate his own schedule. For him I just give him what he needs, whether cuddles, extra affection, and one on one play. I’m also more lax with regard to nap time or bedtime that first day, pushing the start times off by 30 minutes to an hour. I follow his ques and work with him to slowly acclimate back into the routine. By day two it’s business as usual for all!
TIP #2: Allow Your Children To Vent, And Really Listen To Their Concerns
The first week of the shared custody arrangement, I had this picture of my kids returning home to me in great moods, excited and happy to be back. In reality what greeted me as they walked in the door was 4 very different personalities, all with a different perspective on coming home. Although the kids were happy to be home, some were annoyed (let’s face it, worrying about packing / unpacking / then packing back up 2 days later is not fun for anyone), other’s were irritable (great, we just did chores at one house now we have a whole other set of chores to do here!), and my little one was just off (It’s hard keeping track of all those rules…in one house you have one set of rules and expectations, and now in this house we have another set of rules and expectations. It’s hard for a 5-year-old to keep track, never mind understanding why that is). All four of my children came home and made it very clear they were displeased in some way over the situation.
I have learned that it is important to allow the children to voice their displeasure without fear of judgement or retribution. It’s important to remember that children are allowed to get angry. They’re allowed to be disappointed. I do not take the things they say personally or feel like I have to defend myself. If they become loud or disrespectful I do not yell back and send them to their room. Instead, I calmly let them know that I understand that they are angry, and that I want to listen to what they have to say, “but please do so in a respectful way”. I listen intently to my children’s comments, and assure them that I care about how they feel. I let them know how upset I am that they are having a tough time, and reassure them that both their dad and I love them, and are available to help them through this. I have found that by showing my children that I care about what they are feeling, they are more receptive to future conversations, and less likely to become angry and resentful.
TIP #3: Do Not Superimpose Your Own Feelings Onto Your Children
I have 4 children taking part in this arrangement, and all of them have a different take and feeling over the situation. Sometimes their feelings and what they express match my own feelings, while other time they do not. Very often through this process my children have shared certain feelings with me that have hurt me, not intentionally, but because deep down I wished that as their mom, my love would be ENOUGH for them…that somehow because I have been their sole caretaker for most of their lives, that I would hold a larger place in their hearts then the father whom rarely made it a point to be around. All of this was unfair and unrealistic on my part…I know that now. Children, as nature intended, love both of their parents unconditionally! They don’t love one over the other…they just love them equally. I never really understood that until about 6 months ago. As their mom it is NOT my job to second guess their feelings for their father or to show them why he is not worthy of their love…my job is to encourage their love for him and for me. It is healthy and good for them to love us both, and as their parents we need to respect each other’s place in our children’s hearts.
I never talk badly about the father…I never put him down…and I never talk to the children about our conflicts…ever!!! When my children show excitement over getting to spend time with him, I get excited with them! When they say good things about their dad, whether in normal conversation or because they are trying to upset me, I tell them “That’s wonderful, I’m glad you’re having such a good time…or that you’re getting along so well with your dad”. When they tell me that they hate the arrangement and that they want me to fix it, or that they blame me for what they are now going through, I never let my feelings over the situation show. Instead I tell them, “I know this is hard. Your dad and I are working hard to make sure that things get better and easier for you” or “I understand how you feel, but both of us want to spend time with you and be a part of your life. How can WE help make this easier for you”. As hard as it is, it is critically important to not let my real feelings show. My children will be better for it, and more inclined to talk to me about their life with their dad, if they feel that I am not affected negatively, by the things they tell me.
Tip #4: ”Amicably” Incorporate The Other Parent Into Everyday Conversation With Your Children
In a shared custody arrangement, children spend their time in two different households with two different sets of parents every week. One of the hardest things I had to do was face the fact, that my children have a separate life that is part of “their” everyday, but not a part of mine. I had to accept that they have a life apart from me, and I had to get comfortable talking to my children about that life. I also had to come to terms with the fact that I was now sharing the responsibility of my children’s care with someone else. In order to ensure that there was no interruption and to make it easier for my children to transition in and out of these two lives, I had to find a way to seamlessly make both lives fit together into one. In order to do this, I began bringing up their father in every day conversation, especially when we discussed future plans. For example, “The new batman movie comes out the night that you’re with your dad. I know how much you wan to see it, maybe you should ask him if he wants to see it with you.” or “You have a test Friday and you’re with your dad Thursday night, don’t be afraid to ask him to test you on the study guide”. By mentioning the other parent in everyday conversation, it really helps the children feel like there is continuity in their life, it helps merge the two separate households in their minds, therefore minimizing the disruption when they transition households.
Tip #5: Improve Communication With The Other Parent
This was a biggie for me, as “Ex” and I have a tough time communicating. However since this arrangement came to be I have gone out of my way to talk to him about things that happened while the children were in my care, as well as upcoming appointments, assignments, and any other issue he needs to be aware of as the other parent. I’ve also made it a point to reach out to him and discuss difficulties the children may be having, along with working with him to resolve major issues. We also discuss punishments and enforce punishments that are issued at each other’s houses. As they say, achieving that UNITED FRONT is essential. Overtime our communication has improved, and hopefully will continue to get better as time goes on.
Tip# 6: Support The Co-Parent When The Children Are In Your Care
There are times when my children come into my home angry with their dad. As I mention in tip #1, I allow them to vent, but immediately stop them if they begin to speak about the other parent in a disrespectful manner. One of the values that I try to teach my children is that they need to treat ALL adults with respect. Even though I may not always like the things that “Ex” does, or the rules he has in place at his home, he is their father and the secondary care giver. They are to respect him and treat him in the same way that I would want them to treat me. In the event that my children tell me that their father did something that I don’t agree with, I NEVER let my kid’s know that I disagree with his actions. Instead I remind them that they need to be respectful of their father’s rules, and then separately and away from them discuss it with “Ex”. As an aside…I never, ever jump to conclusions about what the children tell me has occurred. I’ve learned through my experience that often their perspective on a situation, is different then what actually transpired. Talk to the other parent and always give them the benefit of the doubt until you actually discuss it with them.
Tip #7: Encourage Your Children To Resolve Their Own Problems As IT Relates To The Co-Parent
This is a biggie for us. While some of the kids are happy visiting with their dad, my oldest & youngest boys really struggle. They often tell me how they feel about the visit, what they don’t like, what annoys them. I listen intently then ask them, “Have you spoken to your dad about how you feel?”. More often than not they do not talk to him about their feelings and instead vent to me. I love that they can talk to me about how they feel and what they are thinking, but let’s be real, there’s not much that I can do about their experiences while they are visiting “Ex”. The person who can do something about it doesn’t know his children are struggling because they aren’t comfortable discussing it with him. Unfortunately, life is full of obstacles and problems that need to be overcome, and even though I may want to, I will not always be there to solve my children’s problems. Instead my job as their mom is to show them the steps they need to take to make it through life’s obstacles. This is a prime example of a situation that I am unable to resolve for them. Instead I empower them, by encouraging my children to talk to their father, “I feel bad that you’re having a tough time at your dad’s, have you told him how you feel? He won’t know your struggling with this if you haven’t told him. If you talk to him, he may agree to change some of the things that are happening”. So far my children respond well to this approach, although they still do not feel comfortable discussing all their issues with him.
Tip #8: Be Patient
Patience as define by my trusty dictionary is, the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset. A shared custody arrangement brings a host of challenges, troubles, and suffering not just to the children, but to the parents. It is essential that anyone in this type of arrangement be patient with themselves, their children, their spouses, and even the co-parent. It takes a lot of hard work, consistent effort, and a lot of trial and error before the arrangement becomes normal to all parties. Most importantly, remember that the children are the ones in the middle of this crazy life, so it is so important that the adults in their lives show an extraordinary level of patience with them. This arrangement is difficult enough for the adults, but for the children…there are no words to describe how difficult this is. Imagine living out of a suitcase every day. Imagine going from place to place several times a week with no end in sight. No sooner do you finally get comfortable in one environment when suddenly you have to pick up and move again. Imagine a world where you have to constantly remember, oh yeah…I can’t wear those shoes because they are at the other house. As an adult, none of us would make the choice to live like that, yet we force our kids to do it. Knowing this, we need to allow them to be angry, we need understand when they act out, we need to be sympathetic when they throw tantrums, and we need to be patient with them. When they act out respond sternly but with love. Then after things calm down go back in a calm way and discuss their feelings, what prompted the misbehavior. Encourage conversation, even when what they say is hard to hear. Patience is what is going to see everyone through this stressful time.
We are still fairly new to shared custody, and I’m always looking for better ways to deal with the difficulties that this arrangement presents. Please feel free to share what has worked for you and your families. What types of things does your family still struggle with?