Making Changeovers in Children's Care as Stress-Free as Possible
More than 40% of marriages and common-law relationships end in separation. As a result, a significant number of children divide their time between two homes. Depending on the parenting schedule, children may experience changeovers anywhere from one to three or even four times every week. Very few adults - really only those who travel frequently for work - experience the type of stress that is associated with regular and frequent transitions from one living environment to another.
On the basis of our belief that most children are quite resilient, we support the idea of them moving back and forth between two homes because it provides them with an opportunity to engage with and be loved, supported and influenced by both parents. Creating an appropriate parenting schedule requires us to examine each child's age, stage of development, personality, capacity to tolerate change and individual need for consistency, structure and routine. We try to balance the child's ability to tolerate periods of time away from each parent against the stress associated with care transitions. We want to maximize the amount of time that children are able to spend in each parent's care, taking into consideration all of the child's specific needs. Some children move back and forth between their homes with ease, while others experience some degree of stress or even turmoil with every transition.
Where, when and how children move from one parent's care to the other's may impact their happiness, stability, performance at school, emotional health and overall ability to function well. We want children to achieve their potential in all areas of their lives.
Some children's care transitions are seamless. Their parents live close to each other, get along well and are able to prioritize their children's emotional and practical needs over their own. These children's transitions occur at school, daycare, day camps or their parents' homes, based on what is most convenient for the children. Their parents share important information about their children's health, homework, school events, extra-curricular activities, social events, etc., either when they meet face-to-face at the transitions or immediately before or after the exchanges. Their priority as parents is to ensure that both of them have whatever information they need to ensure that they are well-equipped to meet all of their children's needs.
On the other hand, some children's care transitions are a nightmare. The location - such as a police station - may be intimidating, particularly if the changeovers occur in the presence of uniformed police officers. The audience present at the transitions - grandparents, new partners or "witnesses" - may create significant anxiety for children. Tension can be high when one or both parents attend exchanges with their own "audience". It not uncommon for one or both parents or others who are present at exchanges to record the event on their cell phone, sometimes quite openly and sometimes secretively. (*There are situations in which a Court will order that exchanges take place at a police station, in a public place and in the presence of a designated third party. These kinds of Orders are made when a Judge has decided, based on all of the evidence about a particular family, that the safest way for care transitions to occur is by requiring these types of conditions. This article is not designed to address these very unique situations.)
The best predictor of children's stress at exchanges (and how quickly they settle once they arrive at their other home) is how their parents behave. Children rely primarily on their parents to care for them and protect them from upset, stress and harm. When parents bring their own tension and conflict to exchanges, children are affected. Many children routinely start to worry well in advance of every exchange because they anticipate tension between their parents. They then experience huge levels of stress during the actual changeover and following it, they may require considerable time and energy to recover. Ultimately, for these children, changeovers become a repetitive cycle of preparing, enduring and recovering.
How can parents minimize children's stress at care transitions?
- If it is possible, have the care transitions occur at school, daycare or day camp. It can be less emotionally challenging for children to say good-bye to a teacher, daycare provider or camp counselor at the end of the day rather than a parent. It is also easier for children to experience only one care transition at the beginning or end of the day rather two. Sometimes though, it's just not possible to have care transitions occur in these neutral locations simply because of a child's personality or their need to bring a significant number of belongings back and forth with them.
- Try to think about care transitions from your child's perspective. They are packing up their things and moving to a different home. Often. No matter how resilient your child may be, there is a level of disruption associated with care transitions and every child needs a period of adjustment. For some children, it may only be half an hour - for others, (for example, children who are in each parent's care for longer periods of time), it may take up to a day or two for them to get back into a routine and feel grounded. It is not uncommon for some children to only "feel like themselves" on their third day after a transition. Be sensitive to your own child's personality and try to support them by giving them enough time to prepare both emotionally and practically for the transition. When they arrive in your care, give them some time and emotional space to adjust to the change in environment. It's often helpful for children to have a routine in place as they leave one home as well as a routine when they arrive in their second home.
- Have your child's personal belongings, clothing, homework, uniforms, equipment and supplies for their extra-curricular activities and anything else that they need while in the other parent's care packed, organized and ready to go. If your child has a hard time getting organized, help them get themselves and their stuff ready.
- If your child is transitioning from your care to your coparent's care, encourage them to stop playing, put away toys and electronic devices, finish up what they are doing and be dressed properly in time to be picked up by the other parent or dropped off to the other parent's care.
- Most children, particularly younger children, like predictability and routine. Whether your coparent is scheduled to pick your child up from your home or you are picking your child up from your coparent's home, be on time. It's not fair for your child to have to worry about being late or to be required to wait for you. There will be times when traffic, weather or an unforeseen personal responsibility makes you late. Being late should be the exception, not the rule. If you know that you are going to be late, let the other parent know.
- If you are picking your child up either at the other parent's home or at another location, be supportive by helping them pick up and carry their belongings to your car.
- At a minimum, when in your coparent's presence, acknowledge their presence, even if only with a brief nod, a glance or a wave. You don't need to have a conversation with your coparent, but for your child's benefit, it is important to be polite.
- Try to be respectful about your coparent's personal space by not entering their home without an invitation to do so. Even though you might feel tempted to place your child in your coparent's car, strap them in and give them a final hug, don't - unless you are specifically invited to do so. It's important to respect each other's personal space. It's also important to send your child the message that you have confidence in the other parent's ability to care for them. Taking over parenting tasks at exchanges may send your child a message that you don't believe that your coparent has the ability to take care of them. That can create uncertainty for your child.
- Sometimes you will feel sad when your child leaves your care. It's very important for your child that you not be emotional at exchanges. If you show you sadness, your child may leave you feeling guilty, confused or fearful. It's not your child's job to take care of you or manage your emotions. It may already be a challenge emotionally for them to leave you. They need to know that they will be OK when they are not with you.
- Make the actual care transition as brief as possible. If you are delivering your child to the other parent, say good-bye, tell your child you love them, give them a kiss and a hug and allow them to actually move physically into the other parent's care quickly. If you are picking up your child, encourage them to kiss, hug and say good-bye to the other parent and then leave promptly. Long, drawn-out exchanges are emotionally challenging for children.
- It is really important that you not argue with your coparent during exchanges. In all likelihood, your child is already feeling a bit vulnerable because they are leaving one parent and that takes some emotional energy, even if they are excited about moving into the other parent's care. Remember the period of emotional adjustment that your child may need. Don't add a layer to it. Even if you are upset about something that your coparent has done or refused to do, it's best not to talk about it during exchanges. There won't be time and you run the risk of everyone getting upset. Being upset is not a great way to start or end your parenting time.
- Care transitions are not the time to discuss changes to the parenting schedule, make plans for upcoming statutory holidays, negotiate vacation time, talk about child and spousal support, remove your personal items or furniture from the home, have travel consents or a medical claim forms signed or talk about settlement proposals or court proceedings. Those are adult issues. Your child doesn't want or need to know about them. A good rule to follow is to never negotiate in the presence of your children. If you need to discuss an issue with your coparent, send them a text or an e-mail identifying the issue and either propose a time to discuss it or a way to communicate about it.
- Please don't record the changeovers on your cell phone. If the other parent is recording you, don't record them doing that. Imagine how your child feels. If they see the two of you acting as though you are not in control, how can we expect them to feel safe with you?
- If a Court Order or a Separation Agreement sets out a list of conditions that you need to follow at care transitions, respect them. All of them. You are bound by your Separation Agreement. If you and your coparent didn't agree about how, when or where the changeovers should take place and a Court has made an order about any of those things, you must follow the Court Order. Court Orders are not recommendations - they are binding. If something in your Agreement or Court Order is not working well, you need to either agree about how to change it or have it changed formally through a Court Order or an Arbitration Award. Don't make unilateral decisions to change or ignore a provision in your Agreement or Court Order.
- If care transitions are not smooth for your children and you notice that your child is uncomfortable, stressed, engaging in regressive behaviour or is just not functioning well, speak to a mental health professional or your lawyer about what is happening and get some advice about what you can do to improve the situation. There are many ways that parents can make transitions easier for children. Find out what works best for your family.