Many parents say that when their children are seniors in high school, poised to leave the nest for adulthood, they become really difficult to deal with. Defiant. Rude. A shadow of their former selves.
The psychological perspective on this that kids have to push parents away in order to feel comfortable leaving home. It’s an unconscious thing but makes sense. In order to separate, they must create separation, and while the way they do it may not be fun to experience, it makes sense when we consider the context.
Believe it or not, a version of this unconscious separation happens every time kids of divorce leave one parent for the other parent’s home.
Co-parents may not realize this is what happening. Many don’t, and instead, attribute tantrums and bad behavior to either a discomfort with being at the other parent’s home or some sort of parenting misstep on the other parent’s part. These typical tantrums can elicit a lot of accusations and court actions from one co-parent accusing the other, when that’s actually not happening whatsoever.
I wish divorced parents could truly put themselves in the position of their children during all of this transition and breakup. Let’s try for a moment.
You as the adult contemplate and consider divorce for a long time before you actually do it, but kids don’t see it coming. Even if parents are fighting or miserable, little ones don’t take notice. They are focused on their own lives, their activities, school, friends, play time, and more.
So imagine your children obliviously plodding along through their childhood when suddenly, the two adults they love the most and depend fully upon announce that everything is going to turn upside down. One of them is going to leave the only home your kids have ever known and live somewhere else.
And now, your children are expected to pack up and move back and forth between these beloved people, in and out of new environments, constantly, for the rest of their childhood, and perhaps their lives.
How would that make you feel?
Do you ever go on a business trip and have a hard time sleeping the first night in a hotel? Then return home at the end of it and collapse into your comfy bed and sleep so well because you are happy to be home?
Children of divorce spend much of their childhood feeling like you might on the first night of a business trip. Constantly needing to adjust, constantly needing to get used to a new space, new rules, new voices, even if they are familiar.
During COVID, this trouble with transitioning is magnified for many children of divorce. That’s because they’re at home more, rather than escaping into the comfort of school as a buffer between their parents’ homes. Instead, now, children are shuttling between parents’ homes and spending long days on-screen learning virtually, more time with each parent, which makes it even harder to separate from them when the time comes.
As adults, we must be sensitive to our children’s feelings and needs. We are the ones who changed the structure of their lives. We are the ones who get to stay put in one place. We are the ones who expect them to shift and adjust easily, and often. And so we must be understanding when they have a hard time processing it all.
The biggest mistake parents make when they see these inevitable melt-downs is assuming it’s because something is wrong or inferior at the other parent’s abode. Not true!!
Sometimes in order for a child to break with the other parent, to be able to say goodbye and be ok and come into another home, they must work through confusing feelings. What rituals can you create to help them acclimate and settle?
With every transition, your children are leaving one parent they love for, yes, another parent they love. But they are still leaving behind someone they love and depend on. Every single time. Try to keep these important points in mind when they do:
- As your children age, listen to their preferences. If they want to do virtual school at one home always, respect that. Agree with your ex to honor your adolescents’ requests and comfort level.
- Don’t assume bad moods or tantrums have anything to do with you or your ex. When your children return from the other parent, don’t punish them for bad behavior. Create a transition ritual – time in front of the TV, a game night, the soothing rhythm of cooking together, quiet time reading with their favorite blanket or chair.
- Realize that a parenting time plan is a compromise for everyone. Recognize the challenge of shifting between homes constantly. Help your children navigate conflicting emotions by being kind and understanding.
- If you can, reduce the number of transitions. Keep a relatively consistent schedule as much as possible. Rhythm and routine can help children weather transitions better.
- Younger children benefit from a visual calendar outlining which days they are in which homes.
- Fill your time together with fun and active things. Create traditions in each home that are memorable and engaging.
- Create recurring things that kids can count on – Taco Tuesday, pizza on Friday night, Saturday sledding.
- Remember that what children need most from you in this challenging time is love, support and a peaceful transition. Do what you can to put your own feelings about the divorce aside and focus on what your kids need.