The two house transition is tough for any kid, but in time, the new normal can feel like home too, even if it is two different houses and two sets of family to love.
“Get out your journals and draw a picture of your home,” the teacher says to a class full of six and seven year olds.
For most kids, it’s pretty simple. You draw a picture, and there’s a box for a house with a triangle roof and all of my family members are the stick figures peering out the crooked windows drawn hastily on the front.
What if all of the sudden you have two houses and your family is split between the two? What if you’re struggling to feel like either one is home or you feel guilty because one definitely feels more like home but you don’t want your other parent to know?
So, when the teachers asks the question, you kind of sneakily look at other happy faces drawing photos to get an idea of what you should do. Then you quickly slap something down on paper and have the internal dilemma of what happens if this paper will get sent home in your folder for your mom or dad to see. So, maybe you intentionally mess it up a little more so it doesn’t look like either house or have any people peering out the window so no one knows what you’re thinking.
You pull your head back from your desk and look. Your drawing looks messy and weird and that’s how you feel on the inside all of the sudden too. Like you’ve been feeling every weekend you’ve been swapping houses and you don’t know how to tell anyone.
All this in the middle of the school day when your teacher innocently asked the class to draw a simple drawing. It will be even worse when she follows it up in a minute asking everyone to write a journal entry about their home and who lives there too.
What do you do when you’re a kid and your life is split? Do you draw two houses? Do you tell the teacher, much less your entire class about how you have two homes, two beds, two families, two lives, and two parents who used to love each other and don’t anymore?
What do you do in the split? What goes to Mom’s house and what stays at Dad’s? What about on weekends when you don’t want to go to the other house because you don’t want to miss a birthday party or a school function? On top of that, what if one of your parents moves a little further away, out of the same town or to another part of the state or country? What if you really do kind of have different lives at your two houses?
Basically, one thing is pretty simple – It’s hard to be a kid of divorce.
Just last night, I was talking with a woman whose granddaughter is a child of divorce. We had asked if her sweet granddaughter was going to be around tomorrow, and she had explained that no, she’d be with her dad but she had cried about it because what the little girl really wanted was to be home with mom.
Whew. How I remember being ten and feeling that tension between homes.
As sweet as it is for that grandmother to look at me and my growing little family and see that I turned out okay, it doesn’t ease the fact that her granddaughter is still in the thick of the swapping houses years.
I told her I remembered the crying and remembered the pain, and I left thinking about what to tell each of you. What are some things you can do as parents to ease the difficulty a kid feels when they have two houses and have to go back and forth all the time?
So I wanted to put together an instruction manual of sorts. So helpful hints on things to ease the transitions, comfort the anxious little hearts, and make a space for your child to feel at home wherever they are.
Whether you are just starting the new normal and feel nervous or you have been in it for several years and are exhausted by the tears at pick up or drop off, this step by step guide is for you.
A Parent’s Unofficial Instruction Manual for Kids Swapping Houses
Step 1: Slow yourself down. Ground yourself in your child’s new reality. Remember this is hard for both of you. If you’re still flying off the handle unable to control your own emotions, you have very little to offer your child you love so dearly in this tough transition.
Step 2: Think about your child. Think about their likes and dislikes, what they’ve been talking about this week, what they’re excited about, what they are scared of, what they need. Hold their face, their dreams, their fears in the back of your mind as you move through the process.
Step 3: Communicate with the other parent. (I know, I know. You want to stop reading now because I certainly don’t understand how difficult it is to communicate with them or how different you are. I get that. I have lived the life of the kid whose parents struggle to communicate. I have also worked with children whose parents do this well. You can too. Your child needs you to.) So talk to them. Compare notes on your child or children. You don’t have to talk about each other, just about your kid. You made this child together. You can still both love this child well. And you both see different sides of your child and love him or her differently. You can help each other help your child through this well.
Step 4: Make a comfortable, safe space for your child at both homes. Include things they love. Maybe it’s favorite toys or comfy sheets they pick out in their favorite color. Include them in the process of making it a home for them. Take them shopping for things with you. Maybe you can’t afford to make them a whole new room with new toys and bedding and a new playroom. Financial issues are heavy around divorce. That’s okay. You can do simple things – photos in dollar tree frames, favorite character coloring books, a duplicate of their favorite stuffed animal, some things from mom’s house or dad’s house shared at the other home. The money spent on making it a home is not what will make it a home. The intention is.
Step 5: Ask your child what they need, what would help them in this tough time. They may not know right away so you may have to give examples or help them tell you what they need. Then take their thoughts into consideration. Maybe they need to call the other parent once a weekend or need some flexibility on weekends sometimes so they don’t miss youth group events. When they trust you with this information, honor them in it. It’s hard to speak up about your needs when you’re a kid. It’s even harder to do it a second time if they get disregarded the first time.
Step 6: Make a plan together, you and your child. Talk about expectations and adaptability – theirs and yours – as you figure this out together. Assure them of your continued consistent love and availability no matter which house or which bed they are sleeping in that night.
Step 7: Prepare for drop off and pick up. The actual transition day between houses can be the hardest for a child. Do what you can to be prepared for their anxiety (and maybe your own)! Try not to come in an angry huff or throw your kid in the car so annoyed with the other parent that there’s yelling and screaming. For obvious reasons, this only raises a child’s anxiety at the pivotal moment of transition. Instead, come with their favorite slushee or something to talk about in the car that you’ve planned just for them this week or weekend.
Step 8: Check all disagreements with the other parent at the door. And resist those urges to make jabs about the other parent throughout the time your child is with you. Your child needs the space to love both of you and that is awfully hard to do when fed lines or opinions about the other parent you couldn’t keep to yourself.
Step 9: Have fun with your kids! Engage them, play with them, do things you enjoy doing together. The housing situation may have changed, but your love doesn’t have to, and they need to know that. Be yourself and encourage them to be themselves. Play games and have good conversations and make the emotional atmosphere feel like home to them too. They will notice, I promise.
A note: You may have multiple children who need to go through this process differently. Your 16 year old with a driver’s license will have vastly different needs from you than a 6 year old with a favorite stuffed animal. A need that every child has is to feel at home and be loved for themselves, so that will not change. In time, the new normal can feel like home too, even if it is two different houses and two sets of family to love.
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