Earlier this week on Twitter, a co-parenting mom and Friend of CoParenting101 lamented that her young son was misbehaving upon his return from time spent with his dad. A few veteran co-parenting moms commiserated with her, and I (Deesha) suggested that she'd need to do what some co-parents do when their children transition from one house to another: de-programming. De-programming is a light-hearted term to describe how co-parents help their children get back into the routine and adjust to the expectations and rules of one house, after spending time with the other parent.
The need to de-program isn't necessarily a knock on the other parent's parenting. Sometimes, de-programming is necessary simply because children, especially young children, aren't quite sure how to navigate the differences in household rules, expectations, and parenting styles. One set of rules and expectations aren't necessarily better than the other, just different. The more consistency between households, expectations, and parenting styles, the easier it will be (in general) for children to make the transition. We encourage co-parents to be on the same page as much as possible, especially with regard to "biggies" like schoolwork, bedtime, health, and media consumption.
But different parents parent and live differently, and so as long as a child is safe, and her needs are being met, learning to live with these differences help children learn to adapt and thrive under varied circumstances. In life, we must learn to adapt to different teachers, different colleagues, different familiy members. But for a child who is co-parented, learning to adapt to two different ways of being parented isn't always easy. And if one or both parents is inconsistent in his/her own parenting, the challenge for the child becomes even greater. Frustrated and confused, children act out.
Sometimes, though, children act out and need de-programming simply because they are tired, miss the other parent, or have conflicting emotions about living across two households, even when there is consistency. Exposure to parental conflict (e.g., being used as a messenger, hearing one parent or other adults say negative things about the other parent, being pumped for information) can exacerbate a child's confusion and difficulty re-adjusting. Other factors that can compound the problem inlcude: feeling responsible for the other parent (Mommy is so sad when I go with Daddy, and that makes me sad); being made to feel guilty for enjoying time with Parent A because of subtle and not-so-subtle messages from Parent B (i.e., Parent B rolls his eyes, makes disparaging remarks, or ignores or punishes the child when she talks about having a good time with Parent A).
Certainly, children aren't robots that we can program (or de-program) at will. They have individual wills and personalities, quirks and termperaments, and of course they change with age. Here are some general tips that may help you to help your child make the transition between households more smoothly:
1. Be patient, be in tune, and be realistic. If your child tends to act out upon return, give him time and space to decompress. Does your child need some time on your lap upon arrival? Time alone in her room before talking with you?
Try seeing these transitions through your child's eyes. From his perspective, what might make them better? You may not be able to accomodate fully, but are there ways that you and your ex be flexible with regard to transitions? Does coming home to dinner or a snack make for an easier transition than coming home and going straight to bed? Will having a snack while en route to your home make the transition easier? Is it easier for your child if you pick her up rather than have the other parent drop her off?
Transitions may get easier as your child gets older and/or settles into the routine set forth by your parenting time schedule. If the schedule is always changing, if a child is picked up early or late, or brought back early or late, it's unrealistic to expect him to be a model citizen in the midst of transitions. Also allow for changes in development, school, family life (new partner, new siblings?), and social life to impact how your child transitions.
2. Be firm, matter-of-fact and clear. Remind your child of your rules and expectations, and be specific. "It sounds like you had a good time jumping on the furniture at Mommy's house, but remember that one of our rules here is that jumping on the furniture is not allowed."
3. Be empathetic and affirm your child's feelings. "I know you had a good time with Daddy. Do you miss him? It's okay to miss people that we love. I bet you're looking forward to seeing him again next Frid..." "Are you having a tough time coming back to this house, after being at your mom's house for a while? Living in two households can be hard for kids sometimes." Ask questons (without interrogating). Listen.
4. Don't take it personally. This is hard, especially for parents who feel like they shoulder a disproportionate share of the work of parenting. Imagine that you're primarily financially responsible for your child, they are with you the majority of the time, and then the other parent breezes in for a day or weekend of fun, and then your kid comes back to you acting like you're Attila the Hun. That not uncommon scenario can test even the calmest of parents. Remember that your child has a right to enjoy time with the other parent, without guilt. Focus on reinforcing your house rules and expectations, but without bashing the other parent to your child.
5. Minimize your child's exposure to parental conflict and other adult "stuff". This includes using your child as a messenger, arguing, and making negative comments about each other to your child (or to others within earshot of your child). Do not pump your child for information about his time with the other parent. Do not pump your child for information about Mom or Dad's new partner. Involve the family courts, a mediator, or a parenting coordinator if your ex persists in bad-mouthing you to your child, putting your child in the middle of adult issues, or if you have serious concerns about your child's well-being while in the other parent's care.
6. Take care of yourself. Let your child know that you miss her when she's go...but you're glad that she had a good time with Mom/Dad. (And watch your body language. Saying the right words through gritted teeth negates the words.) Even if you are devastated, lonely, fearful, or otherwise "not okay" when your child is with the other parent, reach out to another adult for support. Adults should never ask children to shoulder their emotional burdens.
7. Enlist the support of your fellow co-parent. Without attacking or judging, talk about how important it is for your child that the two of you keep to a consistent schedule and help her transition between households. Mention the specific behaviors you're seeing in your child that concern you, and ask the other parent to work with you to brainstorm ways to make the transitions better for your child. Focus on the problem, not the person (the other parent). Keep the focus on your child's needs, not your (very understandable) frustration at the situation.
7. Vent! to someone other than your child or the other parent.
Posted by CoParenting