What’s Best in Two-Home Family Life?
Children and phone calls can be a bit confusing for parents in a two-home family. “Should I be calling every night? I don’t want my kids to think I don’t love them – besides I really miss them.” Or, for some parents, “I’m not going one night without saying goodnight to my kids!” may well up as a solution to deep resentment over being separated from the child(ren) by an unwanted divorce. Both of these approaches are often hard on kids.
From a parent’s point of view, they may be motivated to call their children on their non-residential overnights to communicate their love and to stay connected in a healthy manner. But when parents are missing their children or feeling insecure about their connection, these phone calls can be fraught with missed expectations and unsettled emotions for the child. When parents are imposing calls on the other household to establish some sort of parental rights agenda, children may live in the cross-fire of left-over intimate partner power struggling with all the resulting tension. Not good.
At the end of the day, I know you’re looking for guidance on what’s best for your kiddos and you simply want to get this right! Let’s look at the value of video chat and phone calls through a developmental and parenting-time schedule lens.
For very young children, a regularly scheduled video chat can be part of a developmentally appropriate parenting plan to prevent prolonged separation – create touch-points with a parent who lives out-of-town, or for whom a work schedule prevent more frequent direct contact. When video chats or phone calls are implemented to maintain a secure relationship, children benefit from co-parents scheduling calls to mitigate prolonged absence for the child from the non-residential parent.
Keep in mind, very young children may not relate to the video-chat process (phone or tablet) with much interest. They will benefit from both parent’s patience with their coming and going from the screen – bringing a toy, wondering a way, coming back to the sound of you singing their favorite nursery rhyme and so forth. Calls need to be stress-free and unforced for little one. Frequency is more important than length of call. Remember: This little one will all-too-soon want to be on their phone much more than you approve! Patience as they learn to connect through this mode.
Similarly, even as children get older, when parents live greater distances from one another (or work schedules are such) that visits and overnights are not feasible, videoconferencing and phone calls provide the next best way to connect parent and child in a predictable way. Parents often schedule calls or video chats much the same way they do visits as part of the parenting plan with flexibility to alter the schedule in honor of the child’s extracurricular and academic demands. The residential parent should be respectful of the schedule – and not plan play-dates or similar competing activities during video-chats unless otherwise agreed.
As children get older a weekly video-chat during the school week and another on the weekend is generally sufficient frequency. For the parent wanting to connect with a child, you’re interest is not to become a disruption to the healthy flow of daily life, but rather a periodic-value-add to your child’s week.
And certainly during a prolonged vacation or similar, children benefit from a scheduled call and connection with their non-residential parent. This is for a brief, catch-up to share a few exciting stories and then back into vacation mode.
A well-crafted residential schedule where both parents live in a similar geographic area allows for regular contact through visits or overnights that supports the child’s developmental needs and well-being. When that occurs, regular video chat or phone calls typically are no longer necessary.
In fact when parents call children (what I often refer to as “reaching in” on the other parent’s residential time), the children experience the contact as disruptive, awkward and (often) obligatory. School-age children are typically not big fans of talking on the phone. They like even less to have the flow of their activities disrupted.
And importantly: Children actually protect their hearts (in a good way) from the separation they feel from a parent as they transition between homes. When a parent calls, the parent may inadvertently put pressure on the child who is otherwise mastering the separation without upset.
Think about your kindergartner adjusting to the separation at school, and you keep dropping by the classroom to see if they’re OK. Not helpful, right?
There are other practical matters as well. Daily life rarely allows for regular disruptions and scheduled phone calls. This inserts a time pressure that most families can’t absorb. Children become anxious if they believe they’re disappointing a parent by not being available for the call and residential parents can become irritable when the call further derails normal family flow. None of this benefits the child.
It’s important that children are supported (never forced) to “reach out” to a parent when something special has happened — as the non-residential parent is likely excited to hear good news. It’s also part of most parenting arrangements that the children be allowed contact with their non-residential parent during reasonable hours for a reasonable amount of time. Giving the child the opportunity to self-determine when and how to exercise this option is a perfect place to give them some control – age-appropriate autonomy. Phone calls should not be a source of disruption or stress or obligation or control.
Children do best when parents confidently support them to rest in to their home with their other parent knowing that their relationship is strong and secure, and that the residential switch will occur in a predictable and timely manner. Children benefit from knowing that each parent takes care of their own feelings of loss without extending emotional burdens to the kiddo. Replace the urge to say, “I miss you!!” with “Look forward to seeing you on Friday!!” Help kids feel free to transition, settle in, relax and return without emotional messiness.
The non-residential parent who is receiving calls from a child who wants them to intervene (undermine the other parent or to tattletale?) during their non-residential time should involve their co-parent to assist in managing the child’s anxiety or discontent. Parenting a child across homes is a form of interference unless invited by your co-parent. Genuine parenting concerns raised by a child need to be dealt with in a constructive and non-triangulating manner. Please get help from a co-parenting coach if you find this to be a regular occurrence when your child is in their other home.
On the other side, parents should not feel compelled to answer their phone just because a child is calling. This sets up an unhealthy expectation that you’re always there in a way that is unrealistic and unnecessary. You are there when it’s important; a social phone call does not rise to that level. Parents often place this expectation on themselves out of divorce guilt rather than healthy parenting. Your children are in good hands! They’re with their other parent and you can let go and allow your co-parent to handle the child’s needs.
The thing we want to guard against is children sensing that they need to take care of a parent emotionally through regular interruptions and phone calls, or that a parent will have “hurt feelings” or feel “rejected” when children are disinterested in phone calls or other forms of communication when they’re away.
Lastly, I’ve heard parents comment that it’s their “right” to have contact with their child. To which I respond gently, “Are you interested in exercising your rights or doing what’s right for your kiddo?”
There are many hazards in two-home families when parents forget that working together as a strong parenting team is the most important way to secure your child’s future. This includes having confidence that your child will be cared for when they’re in their other home, and you can enjoy your “off-duty” time, attend their activities and track their school events until they transition back to you.
Like all things co-parenting, coming to agreements, respecting each other’s parenting time / custody time, and allowing children to settle into their two-home life without stress is what matters.
To learn more: Triangulating between parents and children is complicated; two-home family life is fertile territory for this dysfunctional form of family communication. Parents must be vigilant regarding their feelings of wanting to “win” the allegiance of their child as an indication of their importance – and secure the relationship. Here’s an introduction to The Drama Triangle … watch any impulse to play the “rescue role” when your child calls. Adults communicate directly!