Transitions can be tough on kids for lots and lots of reasons. The biggest is that transitions remind every child that they no longer live in just one home with both parents.
Now, moving back and forth between two homes isn’t a bad thing unless the transitions become fraught with adult conflict, unpredictability, stress or undue pressure. When that happens children often anticipate transitions with anxiety, outbursts, refusal, or shut-down – not good for kids. Parents may have their own emotional reactions to transitions – and you can see how the whole situation can quickly become complicated. The sooner parents find their way into smooth, loving, stress-free transitions with the children, the better!
Parents often wonder what works best for kids: Should the parent beginning parenting time pick up the children? Or, should the parent finishing parenting time drop the children off to their co-parent? What about meeting at a neutral location – is that better for kids? Should one parent take responsibility for all the driving? What if a parent chooses to live a significant driving distance from the other parent – then what?
Since parenting plans often require that transportation arrangements be specified, parents are sometimes surprised that they have to make these decisions without much experience. So let’s look at some general recommendations:
- Children often find it easier (emotionally) when the parent they’re settled in with is the one that helps them into and through the transition to their other home … rather than the parent they’ve been away from coming to take them away.
If we look at transition from the children’s perspective, having Mom or Dad arrive in the driveway to “take you away” from their current comfort zone is often difficult. If children dawdle and resist transition, the parent waiting in the driveway or doorstep and the parent in the home may feel increasing stress, which gets telegraphed to the children.
When the duty parent works with the children to pack their things, prepare for the transition, get into the car together, and facilitates the transition to the children’s co-parent, the children often feel more supported by both parents. The receiving parent can be truly ready to receive he children, whether that’s with ample time to help them place their things in their rooms, or to sit down to a meal together.
Transitions are stressful for kids under the best of circumstances. Allowing a half hour or so for the adjustment from one home to another is common and needed. Plan to receive your children with nothing else to do but to help them resettle into your home.
Giving them time to arrive: body, mind and spirit, is part of your job as the receiving parent. For most children this takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. Remember to puppy-pile, reconnect and then move into planning mode.
- Children often do best when parenting change-over can occur at already occurring transitions in their day: To and from daycare, school, camp or other agreed-upon activity. (“I’ll bring her to gymnastics on Saturday morning; you pick her up after her class.”)
Transitions during the week often occur as mentioned above. There are certainly times when parents agree that the children will come home on the bus to one parent’s home – and the other parent will pick the children up on their way home from work. When this works, that’s great! Keep in mind this includes many transitions in one day for a child, which may be difficult. So, although practical, you will want to watch your child’s ability to manage that many transitions before insisting on this particular approach.
- Neutral locations work best when either parent feels uncertain about having a former intimate partner coming to their home – or when due to distance, each parent driving approximately half-way brings a sense of balance and efficiency to the driving requirements for a sensible transition.
Choose a neutral location that’s truly “neutral” and safe for your children. For one child, the fire station parking lot may be an adventure and exciting, and for another it may elicit fears and uncertainty. The neutral location should be easily accessible and uncomplicated by traffic or pedestrians. Remember, you’ll still be handing off the children’s belongings – so ease is a factor.
Parents work out clear agreements for who helps the children out of one car and into the other. Determine how to constructively hand-off gear – misunderstandings simply lead to frustration and stress. And remember a loving, quick hug and a kiss good-bye with each of your little ones, turn, and get back into your own car and prepare to depart. Transitions are not the time for prolonged, emotional goodbyes!
4. Sharing responsibility for the driving – let children know that you’re both on “team kids”! This is not the place to workout divorce resentments. When travel responsibility is unbalanced, unless done from place of open-heart and by clear agreement, the frustrations (feelings of unfairness?) often seep into your child’s experience of transition. Don’t let that happen.
Your job as parents is to iron out the wrinkles of two-home family life. That includes being cooperative around exchanging belongings and supporting children to develop competence in their planning and settling process. Mistakes happen. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Work together for the kids!
- Should be timely – be a good steward of each other’s schedule and be as prompt as is reasonable. If you’re delayed by more than 15 minutes, text when it’s safe so your co-parent isn’t worried about you or the children.
- Calm, loving, and free of adult conversation – a chance to bring up something important with your co-parent may seem convenient and efficient, but transitions are not the time. You have one job: Imagine that you’re asking your child to let go of the hand of the parent they have most recently felt safe and secure with and travel the distance by themselves in order to take the hand of their other parent. Your only job is to make that journey safe, and the space between filled with love and ease.
- Be handled by a parent or designee – No one shall drive the child without a valid driver’s license, insurance and appropriate child safety restraints. Best if both parents agree on who is welcomed during transitions to avoid tension and emotional drama for the adults, or anxiety for the kids. A dating partner can wait at a near-by coffee shop if a parent (or children!) needs more time to adjust to post-separation reality.
To learn more: Chapter 4 of The Co-Parenting Handbook covers settling into two-home family life — and in particular, you’ll find guidance for child-centered transitions on pp. 71-74.