9 Ways to Make Transitioning Easier On Your Kids
Many parents worry about their kids when they transition between households. Children can become stressed and act out in ways that seem out of character. It can be hard to know if your child’s behaviour is a normal reaction to having to move between houses or an indicator of a more serious psychological problem they are experiencing. Even in the best situations, it can be tricky to manage children when they are transitioning between their parents’ households.
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Why do children behave differently before and after transitions?
Recently I have been doing a lot of travel for work. I notice that in the days before I leave for a trip, I’ve been already mentally “checking out” – focused on the stuff I need to get done and remember before I leave my family. I notice too that when I get back, their lives have gone on without me and it takes me a day or two to get back into the rhythm of family life. My kids don’t particularly care what I have been up to, once they have checked out what I have bought back for them (thanks so much Haigh’s Chocolate Shop at Adelaide airport!).
So, thinking about children, it is no wonder that when they transition between households they have some adjustments to make. On top of having to sleep in a different room; cope with different parenting styles, personalities and household routines; they also have to think ahead and cope with the emotions of separation and reunion. These are changes that they didn’t ask for and have no control over. This is hard going for kids!
It’s normal for kids to feel, think and act in ways that express their emotions and stress. They may appear to be sullen and withdrawn, clingy and anxious or angry and hostile. You might notice this just before they leave your care and when they return.
So – EXPECT your children to feel, thank and behave DIFFERENTLY prior to leaving your house and when they arrive. This is completely normal and is not a sign that they are not coping or that there is anything wrong in the other house. But there are some things you can do to help. Here are my top tips for helping your children cope at transition times.
How to make transitions easier.
1.Follow a schedule and a routine.
Try to make the transition time, day and location very predictable and routine. This helps children adjust and get themselves in the right frame of mind to make the transition. Predictability and routine help kids adjust.
2. Transition rituals.
Get into the habit of doing the same things just prior to your child leaving your household. These might be practical things, such as going over their bag to check they have their belongings, or they might be little rituals you develop, such as feeding pets, watching a favourite TV show or doing some chores. Try to do the same thing each time. Similarly, when your child is returning to your care, try to factor in a “transition ritual”. This is an activity that you do (often before returning home), such as visiting the library or swimming pool, to help them adjust to the transition. Have low expectations of them at this time – and make these rituals simple, everyday things, rather than very exciting or hyped up activities.
3. Ensure you are punctual.
Remember, in order to keep things predictable and routine, make a big effort to arrive on time, both for the pick-up and drop off of your children. If there have to be any changes to the schedule, give the other parent as much advance notice as possible.
4. Be civil and polite.
Look, this goes without saying… But it’s easier said than done. Just remember your children are always watching and listening. They learn so much from not just the verbal messages you exchange with their other parent, but the non-verbal cues as well. As simple as this is, it is the one thing that makes the biggest difference to how children will adjust. Be polite. Refer to people by their name and make an effort to say “Hi”.
5. Encourage independence with packing and unpacking.
Even though it might be quicker to do it yourself, try to encourage your child’s independence in packing (and unpacking) their belongings as early as possible. For younger children, get them involved in looking after their belongings. Checklists and visual checklists are helpful (for adults and children).
6. Help with transportation of belongings.
School- aged children already have to cope with a lot of “stuff”. It can add to an already burdened child to have to lug and store heavy items at school. If it is possible, directly transport or pick up their large items from the other parents’ home. A great idea is to have a large bucket or storage container with the items they need, which can be transported by the parents on changeover day. Some families are able to leave the storage bucket on a verandah. If that is not possible, try to make arrangements with their school, so that they have a designated place to store larger items.
7. Allow them to take their belongings between households.
Allow your child to bring their special things (e.g., toys, technology, comforters) between houses. Even if things get lost or are not returned on time, it’s better for your children if they can transport their own items. This gives children a great sense of comfort and helps them manage the transitions.
8. Have a good set up.
Try to have the essential items for your child at each household. Things like clothing, uniforms, toys and other essentials. This makes it easier for them to find comfort and settle into each household. If you can, try to replicate basic items in each household.
9. Update the other parent.
You need a system of communicating with the other parent about your children. Young children may need a “Handover Book”, where you can communicate all the important details about their care routine. But older children also need their parents to communicate directly, so that they are not burdened with this job. Direct emails, messages or other written systems are usually best. Make sure the other parent has access to important upcoming events for your child and knows the key events in the time that has occurred since they saw them last.
If this is not happening in your situation, click here to find out more about ways to improve communication with the other parent. I am a clinical psychologist specialising in helping children and parents who are separated. My team and I have helped thousands of families cope with divorce and ensure that their kids recover and adjust well to separation. The way you parent your children at this time will make all the different to how they cope, not just now, but in the long-term.
Dr Catherine Boland | The Relationspace
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