Managing the Shared Custody Shuffle

by Rosa Lear

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Every other weekend, one night a week, summer vacation, alternating holidays... does this sound familiar? Welcome to the language of custody arrangements.

When my husband and his ex-wife divorced, their agreement called for 50-50 shared custody of their son, "D." Every Sunday, one parent drops D off at the other's house for the week. It's worked out well for D because he has continuity and routine for the entire week in a single household.

While all the players in this split-household situation are now acclimated and comfortable with the schedule, it wasn’t always that way. Here are some pointers I’ve learned in making the transition easier and keeping a co-parented child happy:

Building Trust

While D’s parents are no longer together, he knows that if he ever needs anything or wants to speak to the other, he has that freedom. His feelings are valid and we take the time to listen to him and address those feelings. We’ve also worked hard to make sure that he is comfortable in both homes and that he never feels like a guest just because he’s not with us 100% of the time. He knows he is always loved and that he is our top priority and we work hard to make sure he never doubts that.

Establish Routine Early

Although children do adapt quickly to changes (much more readily than adults), the key to his comfort in making the transition from home to home was to establish and stick to a routine. We set rules early on so that D could become acclimated quickly. Even though he is moved from house to house each week, he understands that within each home there are specific rules and routines that he needs to stick with.

Eliminate Surprises

When we know there will be a change in D’s routine, we make sure to tell him ahead of time so that he is mentally prepared for it. We’ve found that surprising him with changes makes him agitated and upset. He can handle just about any situation if he’s mentally prepared for it. It not only makes him happier, but it makes our lives much easier.

Consistent Rearing Rules

Even though each of our homes has very different individual rules, the underlying parenting goals should be in line with each other. Without a base of instilled common morals and rules for being a good citizen, D’s chances for making the right decisions would be quite skewed. We jointly make sure that D knows to be kind, to say please and thank you, to be conscious of others and their space, that there’s a time for play, that there’s a time to be quiet and in-line, and that he needs to listen to authority.

Knowing the Difference

At a certain age, children begin to understand that if they say or do certain things, they’ll get a certain reaction. We’ve learned to distinguish when D is actually feeling something emotionally or when he’s trying to elicit sympathy or avoid abiding by a rule. For instance, when he got in trouble, rather than addressing the problem, he would start crying and say he missed his mom. At first, we bought into it (maybe a touch of parenting guilt?) and comforted him. However, once we saw the pattern developing, we quickly moved to Plan B and asked him directly if he was crying because he really missed her or because he was afraid he was in trouble. Once he knew we were on to him, he quickly stopped his diversion techniques.

Do you have any techniques that have worked for you in getting your children/step-children more acclimated to a split household?

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