Two Parents, Two Homes:
Easing the transition
Change does not come easily for most of us. This is especially true for young children. Yet, in the midst of this holiday season, many children are spending much of their time split between two houses. Divorce has become commonplace in recent years, but this doesn’t make it any easier for our children. It seems these children are in a constant state of transitioning. They are frequently packing, changing houses and unpacking. They may be adjusting to new stepparents as well. They are commonly transitioning between two households with very different lifestyles. This is true all year, but it is even more prevalent during the holidays.
There are assuredly some positive aspects to sharing physical custody. With very few exceptions, children benefit from spending time with both parents. They love both parents, and both parents love them. However, there is a downside too. Sometimes parents don’t realize how tough it is for children to grow up in two homes. How would you like to switch homes every week, or every few days?
Keeping rules and routines similar at both homes can make things easier for the children. Notice that I didn’t say “identical.” It is unrealistic to expect things to be exactly the same at both houses. However, consistency will help the children feel more comfortable among the turmoil of constantly changing homes. This may be easier said than done. Parenting differences may have been a contributing factor that led to the divorce. In my clinical practice, it has been common to see one parent who is the more responsible one, while the other one seems to mostly be interested in the fun aspects of parenting. It may be difficult for these two types of parents to agree on rules and routines. Look for as much common ground as possible. At least try to agree on some of the big things. Perhaps even these two parents can agree that homework needs to be completed before children are allowed to play video games or watch television.
It would be good if parents could agree on bedtimes for younger children. Adjusting to different sleep schedules each week can be detrimental to children. If one parent allows children to go to bed at 11:00, it is going to take time to adjust to the 8:30 bedtime at the other home. By the time the child makes the adjustment, it’s time to move back to the other house. This type of chaos can lead to sleep disturbances. Sleep is important to both the physical and mental development of children. School-age children need approximately nine to 11 hours of sleep per night. Developing good sleep habits at a young age will benefit children as they progress into adulthood.
Parents should also try to agree on the importance of homework and how it should be handled. For example, children will arrive at the other home with all homework completed. I have seen cases where children visit one parent on weekends and return Sunday evenings. The parent having weekend visits may not look forward to spending time with homework assignments. However, this is part of parenting. It’s selfish to have the children wait until Sunday evenings. Children need some transition time when returning to the other house. It’s likely that they need some down time to relax after the visit too. Additionally, waiting until Sunday evenings to do homework may also make them late to bed and teach children to become procrastinators.
Once you have found all the common ground to be found, don’t fret about the rest. There are also some advantages to growing up in two different types of homes. These children have the firsthand opportunity to experience that not all families live exactly the same. They can also learn to be flexible and resilient. In fact, we are regularly put into various settings which have differing expectations. School expectations often differ from those at home. As a teacher, I have frequently had to explain to students that certain words are not allowed at school. Children can be confused, because they are allowed to say these particular words at home. I must accept that I have no control over what is allowed at home. I can only focus on what is permitted in the school environment. Divorced parents must learn to do the same. Each parent can only be in charge of his or her own home. Children do learn which words are allowed at school and home, and they do adjust accordingly. There may also be an additional set of expectations for children when visiting grandparents. In fact, we may have different expectations for them at McDonald’s than we do at a fancy restaurant. Learning to adapt to different surroundings is an important and valuable life skill.
Divorce is difficult on children, and constantly moving back and forth between houses after a divorce may leave many children feeling as if they are in a constant state of turmoil, chaos and transition. Parents can help to make this easier on their children by creating similar environments at both houses. This doesn’t mean that things need to be identical. However, parents should work together to find as much commonality as possible to make the transitioning easier for the children involved. Remember, the best interest of the children matters most!