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Therapist Corner: Tips for Dual-Household Co-Parents

Hello. My name is Colin Sandgren, and I am a therapist here at Kids in the Middle (KITM). Through my experience with divorce and separation, one of the trickiest issues related to co-parenting that is constantly brought to light is managing transitions between two separate homes. Although these transitions may not apply to every divorced parent out there, it is safe to say that a significant portion of you have run into this issue in one way or another. Since this is a common problem for many separated families, I wanted to share some tips for dual-household co-parents that might assist in making these transitions easier on you and your child(ren). Remember that everyone’s situations are unique, and some recommendations may not be feasible. However, these are important things to keep in mind, given your specific situation.

(1) Keep your transitions simple and quick. As I am sure many of you can understand, transitions from one household to the other can be overly and unnecessarily complicated for all parties involved, especially the child(ren). Sadly, it tends to be the children impacted the most by these transitions, often resulting in numerous frustrating or concerning behaviors for parents to address. To avoid creating these complicated transitions, it is best to predetermine pick-up and drop-off spots where the transitions will typically occur. Ideally, these will be convenient for all parties involved and will be familiar to your children (e.g., school, homes, etc.). With this, it is helpful to keep the number of drop-off and pick-up spots to a minimum so your children can track where these will occur. Furthermore, during these drop-offs and pick-ups, if obtainable, it is great for the children to see friendly and civil interactions between co-parents. If your child(ren) knows that each of you will be friendly and kind to one another, it will often reduce stress leading up to the change in households. Finally, both co-parents need to be active and organized in knowing the transition schedule for any given week. Mistakes happen, and you will get days, appointments, or special events mixed up, but for the most part, both parents should have some way of tracking where they need to be and when as it relates to the household transitions for their child(ren).

(2) Avoid packing bags between households. I know this one may be hard for many of you to put into practice, but the reasons for not packing bags are paramount. To begin with, most children, and adults for that matter, tend to have associations with packed bags that make them feel as if they are not at home. For example, we all pack a bag when we go on a vacation, a work trip, etc. When we pack these bags, we attempt to bring just enough of what we feel we are going to need for the time we are going to be wherever we are going (If you are like me, you pack too much). Thus, the overall implication of packing a bag is that you are going somewhere where you will NOT be staying. Now, this is not a big deal when children go to a hotel or to a friend’s house. But, when they go to a co-parent’s house, this can have very negative impacts on their behavior. It is important in joint custody situations that the children involved feel as “at home” as they can be at each house. In many ways, sending them to one house with a bag does the exact opposite by reminding them they will not be staying at this house. Avoiding the use of overnight bags will likely require having two sets of essential things (clothes, hygiene products, etc.). Although this may be harder than simply packing a bag, your child(ren) feels more at home with both parents, which can help promote better behaviors and easier transitions between households.

(3) Communicate the transition schedule with your child(ren). To help reduce confusion, it is helpful for both co-parents to review the custody schedule. This is important to do after an agreement on the custody plan is reached, as it keeps your child(ren) feeling included in the process overall, which can go a long way. Also, depending on the age of the children involved and the complexity of the transition plan, it could be helpful to do this weekly or monthly. Furthermore, communicating reminders to your children, such as “remember, you’ll be at your father’s house this coming weekend,” can be helpful as children have lots going on in their lives and might forget where they are supposed to be. Creating a calendar or a poster for custody days for the week or month to put in your child’s room can also help keep them up to date on where they will be and when.

(4) Keep consistent rules and routines across households. Another helpful tip for co-parents with multiple households is to get on the same page about daily/nightly routines and house rules. Children need boundaries, rules, and routines, and they need these rules, boundaries, and routines to be consistent across space and time. If there is a stark difference in routines and rules at one house but not at the other, problematic behaviors will likely arise, and transitions will become more difficult for everyone involved. Of course, this will require you and your co-parent to communicate and compromise openly. Still, the result of your communication and compromise is an easier and healthier transition for your child(ren) between homes. Plus, if the transition is easier on your child(ren), it will be easier on you.

(5) Listen to your child(ren)! This may sound simple, but I promise you it is helpful. During a separation or divorce, children often feel like everything is out of their control, which is a valid feeling. Often, children are left out of conversations about custody agreements and other changes that develop during the process of separating. Therefore, listening to your child(ren) and their thoughts and feelings about the transition plan is important. First, it allows your child(ren) to be heard, which helps them feel included and validated. Second, sometimes it just takes a minor adjustment to the custody plan to fix what issues might be going on. In conclusion, it pays to listen to your child(ren) because it helps them feel included in a process that often leaves them feeling powerless. It also provides workable solutions for adjusting a custody plan to make these transition times easier.

(6) Be consistent! I briefly mentioned this in the first tip, but it is such a vital part of helping manage transitions between homes that it deserves its own number. Routines are important for all of us, especially for children going back and forth between two households. Consistency between the two households is necessary to establish a healthy, efficient, and productive transition plan. Not every week has to look the same as the last, but the more you can maintain a consistent schedule weekly, the easier it will be on your child(ren). This consistency helps to reduce mix-ups as it relates to which place your child(ren) need to be when, as well as reduces the amount of energy the child must expend on worrying about where they might be each week.

(7) Keep it fun! Finally, with these transitions between two homes, something to keep in mind is to make it light-hearted and fun. Co-parents can do this in many ways, such as playing fun games on the car rides to and from home or coming up with a fun ritual such as stopping to get ice cream after a transition day. You can get creative with this based on your child(ren) ‘s interests. Keeping it fun helps reduce the anxiety, anger, and sadness that can arise during transition times. It also gives your child(ren) something fun to look forward to on days that can be tiring and stressful for them.

All in all, these are a few brief tips that people have found to help manage the often-difficult transitions between two households within varying custody agreements. These tips are by no means meant to be a fix all for the situation. Instead, they are organized to provide you and your co-parent with some basic practices that help reduce the number of issues observed and experienced at transition times between co-parent households. Some of these tips might work, and some may not. This brief article aims to provide you and your co-parent with numerous tools and ideas to review and potentially implement in your own unique situations.

Colin Sandgren, MS