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.
Many separating and divorcing parents (as well as parents who have never been married) hire divorce experts from the mental health field (like me!) for help crafting their custody agreement — the document that describes how they will make decisions and take care of their children once their family is divided into two households. Sometimes they want that professional to serve as a facilitator who can offer expert advice, other times as a mediator. Some folks seek help on their own, others are referred by attorneys or attorney mediators who feel that a mental health professional (with a background in family systems and child development as well as expertise in separation and divorce) is often better qualified to help craft a plan that will be in children’s best interests now and into the future. And it doesn’t hurt that most mental health professionals charge lower hourly fees than do their attorney colleagues.
Sometimes a couple will work with a mental health professional independent of any legal process. Other times they’ll work with a mental health professional on parenting issues, and with attorneys (or an attorney mediator) on financial issues. Whether you and your co-parent get along well and agree on most aspects of parenting, or can barely speak to each other and disagree on almost everything, the right experienced mental health professional can help you come up with a detailed, workable plan that will hold up over time.
What is “custody” anyway?
The term custody is composed of two parts, “residential custody” (how much time children will spend with each parent and according to what schedule) and “legal custody” (how parents will make decisions related to three major areas- religion, health, and education). Shared residential custody means that each parent will have at the children living with them for a substantial number of overnights in a given year (the precise percentage varies by jurisdiction); joint legal custody means that both parents will have equal input into decision-making.
What is the difference between a “parenting plan” and a “custody agreement?”
Court-generated custody agreements are basic– they typically address the weekly and holiday schedules and decision-making on major issues, but not much else. They are also static, so they don’t change as the needs of a family change. They often contain boilerplate, legalistic language about how each parent will behave. Often parents don’t see this language until after their attorneys (or, a judge) have drafted the document. So while such language may make good sense in the abstract (e.g. “Parents agree not to disparage each other in the presence of their children”), it is unlikely to make much difference in real world interactions.
A good parenting plan, on the other hand, contains no boilerplate language. It goes far beyond the basics of scheduling and major decision making; it addressing the myriad (sometimes subtle) important issues that affect parenting on a day-to-day basis. A parenting plan is the product of a series of facilitated conversation in which the parents make their own decisions. But even if you want to maintain control over post split co-parenting decisions (and you should!), you’ll want guidance. After all, you’ve never done this before (at least not with this partner). When I’m working with a couple I offer the benefit of my years of experience working with divorcing parents and children of all stripes. I answer such questions as “How have other families handled various time-sharing schedules for kids of varying ages?”, “How have they shared holidays?”, “How have they dealt with the introduction of new significant others?” I help parents anticipate the not-so-obvious implications (positive and negative) of various ways of doing things and, if asked, I share the results of the latest research. Because children’s needs and family circumstances change over time, a good parenting plan is a living document. It is thoughtfully crafted, comprehensive, and written in such a way that it can meet the evolving needs of a developing family. It’s counterintuitive, but the more detailed your parenting plan the less likely you’ll be to refer to it over time. Why? Because knowing you have a default plan that is fair to both of you will probably leave you feeling freer to be flexible with each other when the time comes.
And remember: Your parenting plan is your floor. At any time you and your ex can mutually agree to make one-time or permanent modifications- without permission from a court or anyone else.
How do mental health experts work with a couple to craft a parenting plan?
Every professional works a bit differently. My typical protocol (it’s not cast in stone) involves:
- An initial joint session for the three of us to meet and for both parents to get a sense of what it would be like to work with me.
- Two individual appointments (one for each parent) in which they’ll have a chance to share their perspective and concerns. These are not confidential meetings (I won’t be holding any secrets), but it does give me time to get to know each parent better and to learn what is most important (or worrying) to them.
- A series of meetings (typically one and a half to two hours in length) in which we work through the clauses of the parenting plan.
What goes into a parenting plan?
A parenting plan contains a number of potential “clauses;” some will feel relevant to you and others won’t. How much detail to include for each clause (or whether to include a given clause at all) will depend on your particular situation and parenting dynamics. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of clauses that are typically addressed in a parenting plan:
- Shared Narrative: What will you tell your children about your divorce? How will you answer their questions?
- Decision-Making: How will you make decisions of such issues as education, religion, health, extra-curricular activities, child-care and summer camps? What decisions must be joint? What decisions can be made independently?
- Transitions of children: When will they happen? Where? Who will transport the children?
- Make-up time: What (if anything) will happen if either of you is unable misses a substantial amount of time with your kids?
- Right of first refusal: If one of you is unable to care for your children will you be obligated to offer that time to the other parent before hiring a babysitter? How much time will trigger this obligation (A few hours? An overnight?)
- Unscheduled days off from school:What will happen if school is closed unexpectedly or if the children are sick on a school day?
- Well medical: Who will take the kids to their routine medical/dental appointments?
- Holidays: How will you handle federal holidays and long weekends, as well as Thanksgiving and any other major/minor holidays you celebrate?
- Birthdays: How will you spend time with your children on their birthdays?
- Breaks from school: How will you handle Spring Break and Winter Break
- Summer and summer vacation: Will the ordinary weekly schedule continue into the summer, or will you change to a new one? How much time will each parent have to take vacations (or staycations) with the children?
- Communication: What (if any) protocols will you use in communicating with your children and with each other?
- Information sharing: What measures will you take to make sure each of you has access to and is up-to-date on all important information about your children (including educational, medical, and social)?
- Parent attendance at children’s events: Will both of you be free to attend all events to which parents are usually invited, or will you divide some of them?
- Introduction of new significant other: Do you want to discuss any “rules of the road” in this area?
- Relocation: Do you want to discuss any mutual expectations about how to handle a local or long-distance move on the part of one or both parents?
- Dispute resolution: What protocols will you follow for resolving disagreements in the future– hopefully without having to involve lawyers or the courts?
How long does it take to write a parenting plan?
How many sessions we will need to complete a particular couple’s plan depends on many factors such as:
- The number of children they have, and their ages
- Whether or not any of the children have special emotional, developmental or learning needs
- How much overlap or difference their is in the parents’ opinions, desires, and parenting styles
- The level of conflict between them
- The complexity of their lives
I have done parenting plans in as few as one session and as many as….. a lot. But I am always interested in efficiency- I want to spend as little of my clients’ time and money as I can while ensuring that both comfortable with their outcome and that I feel confident in the quality of our product.
Does a parenting plan become part of a separation or divorce agreement? Who drafts the parenting plan?
Again, different professionals work differently. I typically write draft parenting plan language in real time. I have my laptop open during meetings so I can capture our current draft language. At the end of each meeting I email both parents the latest working draft of the parenting plan, along with any “minutes” capturing general discussions we had during that meeting. That way parents can review working agreements (or options under consideration) between meetings, and can refer to the language itself if they have trouble recalling our latest conversations. Couples differ widely in how involved they want their attorneys to be in the process of crafting a parenting plan. Clients should always feel free to consult their attorney/s anywhere along the way, or wait and bring him or her a completed plan for review and final drafting. If a couple is planning to legally separate and/or divorce, their parenting plan will then get attached to the financial Agreement and become the Custody portion of your Separation Agreement or Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA).
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.