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.
Divorcing parents want to support their kids and minimize pain. But being a good parent sometimes means taking unpopular positions. And what if you don’t have a cooperative co-parent who supports your philosophy? In this episode of their podcast, Kate and Jane offer practical and empathic advice for handling even the most complex and emotionally fraught divorce discipline challenges.
Discipline and Divorce Part 2: 15 Common Mistakes Parenting Mistakes
“Now that we’re splitting up, should I be softer on the kids or keep doing things the old way?” “Should my ex and I try to have the same rules?” “What if my ex undermines me with the kids?” Deciding how and when to discipline our kids during the emotional maelstrom of divorce is tough. But you can learn to navigate even the thorniest challenges if you start with a solid understanding of what constitutes effective discipline for kids of various ages- divorcing parents or no. In this episode, Kate and Jane discuss their ideas about how best to think about and implement discipline. They explore the difference between punishment and consequence (and why it matters), and offer a list of “11 Things to Keep in Mind When Imposing Consequences.”
“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.