It’s right up there with telling your children about the split — another anxiety-producing, watershed moment in your life as a divorcing parent.The day one of you moves out.
Whether you’re staying or going, you’re worried about your kids. Even if you know lots of divorced families, it’s hard to imagine how your children will cope with the transition to living in two homes.
You’re looking for ways to ease the pain. Here are some tips:
(Note: Tips 2-9 are geared to the moving-out parent, but are relevant for both of you as you co-parent through this phase)
1. Minimize surprises
Your kids’ first questions will be basic: They’ll want to know who’ll live where, when they’ll see you, and if they’ll have to give up anything important — friends, school, activities. Offer them a roadmap of what to expect — including a move out date. Give enough advance warning that your kids will feel prepared, but not so much that they’ll be tortured by anticipation. There’s no magic number — two weeks is usually about right.
2. Real estate is for adults
Many well-intentioned parents think that by including them in the search for new digs they can give their kids a sense of agency and replace sadness with excitement. Actually, divorce-related house shopping scares children (“What if I make a bad choice?”), confuses them (“Am I the other grown-up now?”), and sets them up for disappointment (“What do you mean we lost the apartment?”). Make this decision on your own. Later you’ll all have fun making kid-appropriate choices, like bedroom décor and video game consoles.
3. Be thoughtful about “stuff”
Children are sensitive to change and develop quirky attachments to objects. So give your kids a heads up before removing visible items from the marital home. If you take something big (a couch, a coffee table), work with your spouse to replace or rearrange things so the house doesn’t look decimated.
Especially if you’re moving into temporary space, you may not want to divide your belongings right away. But do take enough meaningful things (some family photos, a few toys) to create a sense of familiarity.
If a child has an emotional tie to an important item (a security blanket, a stuffed animal), encourage them to carry it back and forth. But don’t expect them to track it during transitions — that’s your job.
Do not pack boxes or move things out of the house while the kids are there, even if they’re asleep!
4. Set the scene
Before you bring your kids to your new place, procure the basics. If time or money is tight, focus on one comfortable hangout space (a couch, a t.v.), an eating area (table, chairs), and the bedrooms (beds, dressers). Stock the fridge and lay in bathroom supplies, some clothing staples, and a few favorite playtime activities.
5. Plan a gradual transition
Your kids will fare best if you don’t push for too much too fast. Consider a few daytime stints before graduating to overnights. There’s no set formula for the ramp-up. Factor in your children’s ages and temperaments, and remain open to slowing down or speeding up if they seem to need it. If you and your ex disagree on pacing, get input from a mental health professional with the right expertise.
6. Let them show off
If tensions aren’t too high, encourage your kids to give their other parent a tour of the new place. Feeling they have both of your blessings will help them settle in.
7. Be patient
It’ll take a while for your kids to feel they have two equally important residences, so resist the urge to correct them when they reflexively refer to the marital house as “home.” A comment like “Hey, this is your home too,” may shame or irritate. Instead, lead by example. Replace “I’m gonna take you home now” with “It’s time to go back to Brentwood Street.” Give it time: Your kids’ language will naturally shift as they adjust to their new normal.
8. Maintain continuity
School age kids will resist time with you if it disrupts their social lives. Regardless of the schlep, make sure they get to soccer practice, playdates, birthday parties. And extend invitations — nothing says “home” like a sleepover pizza party.
9. You can’t have too many friends
Helping your kids to sustain old relationships shouldn’t stop you from helping them to form new ones in your neck of the woods.
10. Maintain consistency
You won’t get perfect symmetry, but aim to coordinate with your ex on fundamentals like mealtimes, bedtimes, and (if your kids are older) homework, chores, and discipline. Even if they grumble, your children will feel safer if their parents are in synch.
11. Be compassionate
It’s natural for your kids to have moments of missing their other parent. Try not to get angry (“You saw Dad two hours ago!”), defensive (“What am I, chopped liver?”), or reactionary (“Fine, get your coat!”). Calm statements like “I know you miss Mommy. It stinks that you can’t be with both of us at the same time,” or “You’ve had to deal with lots of changes; it’ll take time for this to feel like home” will reassure your kids that you understand and accept their feelings.
12. Soft-pedal “goodbye”
Separations needn’t be agonizing. Let your kids know that you’ll have them in mind but won’t pine away in their absence. A tearful “I’ll miss you, call me whenever you want,” will heighten anxiety. A breezy “Have fun this weekend, I’ll see you Monday” will give your kids a solid launch.
13. It’s not a contest
If you’re moving out, you might worry that your ex has the home field advantage. If you’re staying, you might worry that the new place has more allure. Relax: Condo or mansion — if yours is a warm, nurturing environment in which their practical and emotional needs are met, your kids will want to be there.
After all, your house is not your children’s emotional home. You are.
“Will I be able to protect my children? Can I ease their pain?” If you’re a divorcing parent, these primal anxieties dominate your daily thoughts and inhabit your dreams. Especially if you’re the product of a badly handled divorce or have seen others flounder in the wake of family upheaval, you’re desperate to get this right.
But you’re only human.
At its best, parenting is a series of educated guesses and course corrections. Parenting during divorce? It’s like trying to paint a still life in a sandstorm. Delicate business amidst pain and chaos.
Keeping your children’s needs front and center while your own feelings roil is a tough emotional balancing act. Especially early on while you’re still shaky, it won’t take much to throw you off kilter. One nasty email from your ex can land you on your butt.
It makes sense that the most common post-split parenting errors happen when we’re in the most common kinds of post-split distress. I’ve grouped the list below with that in mind — some classic “Awful Feelings” along with the “Botch-Ups” they often engender:
Awful Feeling #1: Anxiety About Separation From Your Kids
- The clingy goodbye: Your kids need to feel they have your blessing to go, and your confidence that they (and their other parent) can manage the time away. Lingering hugs, plaintive “I’ll miss you’s,” hyperbolic expressions of affection (“I love you to the moon and back again!”) and excessive reassurance (“Call me whenever you want, even in the middle of the night!”) can turn an otherwise steady child into a nail-biting mess.
- Too many phone calls/texts/emails: Especially if your kids are still little or you’ve never spent much time apart, you’ll want to be in touch. And maybe you should be; for some children regular check-ins create a helpful emotional bridge. But when your dialing finger tingles, ask yourself: “Who needs this call, me or them?” Lots of kids deal with separations by temporarily putting thoughts of the “away” parent on the back burner and focusing on their here-and-now. Consider whether frequent communication will disrupt a helpful coping strategy.
Awful Feeling #2: Loneliness
- Leaning on older kids: You lost your go-to companion and confidant when your marriage ended. A concerned teenager is a tempting substitute, and may want to shore you up (“I was gonna go to a party, but it’ll be lame. I’ll hang here.”) or be excited to play what feels like a grown-up role. But a teen’s focus should be outward (school, activities, friends), and they’ll suffer if the parent/child boundary is blurred. Find adult sources of comfort, and encourage your kids to choose the lame party over the lamer evening at home with you.
- Babying the little ones: I’m all for physical affection; your kids need reassurance now more than ever. But post-separation (while you’re craving contact and painfully nostalgic), “just right” can easily slide into “over-the-top.” Excessive hugs and kisses, lap-sitting when a child is ready for their own chair, bed-sharing at any age (I get it, they’re really cuddly)… These behaviors are driven by and infused with your emotional needs. Unlike run-of-the-mill expressions of parental love, they have a confusing intensity that can make your kids anxious and regressed.
Awful Feeling #3: Anger at Your Ex
- Subtle disparagement in front of the kids: I don’t know one separated parent who hasn’t, say, muttered “Since when are chicken nuggets a food group?” upon hearing a recitation of the dinner specials at Bistro d’Ex. Try to check yourself. Kids have emotional satellite dishes on their heads—no eyeball roll or disdainful groan escapes detection.
- Trash talking your ex: From time to time, you’ll need to vent. But when shopping for sympathetic ears, don’t buy in bulk. Rushing to ensure that everyone in your social circle knows your side of things generates nasty gossip that reflects badly on you and finds its way back to your kids. Regardless of their merit, divorce stories always sound like the ravings of a bitter lunatic when delivered on the sidelines of a little league game.
Awful Feeling #4: You’re Losing Control Over Your Kids’ Lives
- The interrogation: You gave up knowledge of the totality of our kids’ life experiences the first time you dropped them at day care. It felt weird then, and it feels weirder now. But I don’t need to explain the difference between asking your son or daughter if they had a nice weekend and asking if they watched “crappy television” the whole time.
- The post drop-off freak out: From time to time your kids will return with upsetting news. Even if it sends your blood pressure sky-high (“Guess what! Mom let us ride in the convertible without car seats or seat belts… again!”), don’t have a conniption and run to the phone. Manage things later, when you’re calmer (and alone).
As a therapist, I’m not big on self-disclosure — and this is about as public as it gets. But it’s important, so here goes: It’s been awhile, but there is no blooper, blunder, or boo-boo described above that I haven’t committed. Not one. And it’s not even a comprehensive list; it’s really more of a sampling.
Any newly-divorced parent who won’t admit to screwing up on a regular basis is either ashamed or out to lunch.
Here’s the good news:
- If you want to improve your post-split parenting skills, you will, and…
- The fact that you want to improve means you’re already doing a lot right. The ongoing act of trying to separate your own emotional needs from those of your children (so you can stay kid-focused) earns more parenting points than hitting the perfect note in any given moment.
In the meantime, the occasional “I’m sorry I behaved that way, I’ll work on doing better” goes a long way. Take it from me.
We’ve been divorced almost 2 years now and my ex still won’t make eye contact when he drops the kids off at my house. I always ask him how he’s doing or invite him in for coffee, but he just grunts “no thanks” and heads back to his car. I don’t get it- he must know it would be better for our kids if they could see their parents getting along! What can I do to get him to change his tune?”
As a therapist, I hear complaints like this every day from well-meaning folks desperate to establish friendly relationships with unresponsive, angry exes. Of course a collaborative co-parenting partnership is best for children. But it’s not always possible, especially when wounds are fresh.
You already know, at least intellectually, that you can’t turn your ex into someone you would’ve wanted to stay married to. So if you repeatedly extend olive branches only to have them chopped off, set on fire, and thrown back in your face, it’s time to ask yourself some tough questions:
- Is my ex ready for, or even capable of, the co-parenting relationship I wish we could have?
- Am I reallybeing nice by reaching out, or am being insensitive to my ex and (without intending to) making things worse or extending the period of time that they push back on my efforts to be friends?
- Why have I tried to be friends for so long, when it’s clearly not working?
- Is there a better way to get what I want?
We’ve all heard the hackneyed-but-true aphorism: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome.” There’s nothing “insane” about wanting (and striving for) a good relationship with your ex. It really is better for everyone when a post-split couple can think of themselves as a restructured family- rather than two separate households who can’t communicate. But let’s face it: If you’re stuck pursuing a friendship with an ex-spouse who rejects you time and time again, it’s because you can’t, for some reason, let go.
Over the years I’ve learned that when a divorced parent falls into the “friendly but frustrated” category (in other words, sticks with a long-term, ineffective strategy for getting their ex to at least “fake it ” for the kids), there’s something going on under the emotional surface. In order to give you the idea of what I mean, below I’ve listed a few “Common Awful Feelings” that accompany divorce (not a comprehensive list, just a sampling). Under each “Awful Feeling” I’ve described a “Typical Complaint” from a “nice” but frustrated former spouse, followed by the suggestion of “A Less Nice, But Better Way” to cope.
COMMON AWFUL FEELING #1: GUILT
“My ex often finds a parenting-related pretext to call, then launches into a marathon rant about how I’ve destroyed her life. No amount of reassurance (“Yes, you’re the mother of my children. Yes, I’ll always care about you!”) calms her for long.”
A LESS “NICE” BUT BETTER WAY
Especially if you initiated the split or hale from a family in which divorce “isn’t done,” you may be haunted by a sense of failure. But don’t let self-recrimination hold you in destructive patterns of behavior. Engaging in painful, looping conversations about how you’ve let your spouse down keeps both of you from grieving, moving on, and re-tooling your relationship from an intimate partnership into a respectful co-parenting partnership. Kindly but firmly tell your spouse that you’re done talking about your marriage. Then direct your attention where it belongs— towards your kids.
COMMON AWFUL FEELING #2: LOSS OF CONTROL
“Taking solo care of the kids is new for my ex. So I give him a weekly list of local child-friendly activities, send electronic reminders of school events, and email recipes for easy-to-prepare, healthy alternatives to pizza and cheeseburgers. He ignores every suggestion.”
A LESS “NICE” BUT BETTER WAY
Giving up control when you’ve been the everyday go-to parent is rough. Especially if your former spouse hasn’t logged many hours in the kitchen or carpool lane or you think his or her parenting hard drive is faulty, you’ll worry. But even if your ex’s best Saturday plan involves pizza and Xbox, if he or she experiences your well-intended advice as patronizing and intrusive back off. Lash yourself to the mast and stay out of the mix. Your kids and your ex need time and space to navigate new territory, and let’s face it— so do you.
COMMON AWFUL FEELING #3: LOSING YOUR INTACT FAMILY
“I want our kids to see that even though we’re divorced their mom and I are still friends. So I save a seat at back-to-school night, bring an extra mug of coffee to soccer games, even invite her for Sunday dinner. She’ll have none of it. It seems the harder I try the madder she gets.”
A LESS “NICE” BUT BETTER WAY
One of the toughest aspects of divorce is that partners rarely cross the emotional finish line together. You may have grieved your losses and feel ready to spend easy social time with your former spouse. But if he or she is still reeling, pushing for more togetherness is not only insensitive, it’s short sighted. Especially early on, too much family time sends mixed messages to a grieving spouse still secretly hoping for a reconciliation. It delays repair and recovery. Respecting your ex’s boundaries now gives you your best shot at being able to dance together at your daughter’s wedding.
COMMON AWFUL FEELING #4: FEAR OF YOUR EX
“On weekdays I work brutal hours and rarely see my kids. So I hate my ex’s frequent last minute attempts to sabotage my weekends (“There’s a neighborhood camping trip. Do you really want to tell the girls they can’t go?”). If I stand firm, she flies into a rage and threatens to tell the kids I left the marriage because I don’t love them anymore. I just can’t take the risk.”
A LESS “NICE” BUT BETTER WAY
During the raw days of early divorce, we all make a few unreasonable demands. But most of us calm down and don’t follow through. If your ex tries to blackmail you into making concessions you’re not comfortable with, you know better than anyone if he or she is the type to make good on the threat. But think about it: What good can come from giving in to terrorist tactics? Whatever you’re afraid of, trust me— if it’s in your ex’s character and ability to do it, he or she already has. Instead of capitulating out of fear that your ex will disparage you to your kids, assume it’s happening now and find a way to address the misinformation directly. Stop making fear-based concessions, and start making independent, pro-active parenting decisions.
No one wants to re-create their marriage in their divorce. But changing established relationship patterns with a former life partner is tough. And not just because old habits die hard, but because dismantling a marriage, even by choice, represents the death of a dream. Acknowledging that loss-whatever it means to you-is the first step toward relinquishing stale dynamics, accepting current reality, and crafting a new and better co-parenting relationship over time.