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.