How to Make Shuttling Between Households Easier
© 2008 Bill Nodrick, PhD & Bev Nodrick, RSW
Shuttling between different households is the norm for many children living in stepfamilies. These “transitions” can be exceptionally trying for everyone involved. Following are 21 strategies you can use to minimize difficulties that are likely to appear at these times.
1. Once a "visitation
schedule" is in place, STICK TO IT. As difficult as it may be, do
your best to resist invitations, suggestions and pleas to be
"flexible" or "accommodating". Rest assured, departing
from the explicit terms of the schedule will open up your family to intrusion
and chaos that will be a lot harder to deal with than being firm with the
schedule from the outset.
The kids involved will be much happier if their schedule is not always being
disrupted by “last minute” changes.
2. Post a calendar reflecting the
schedule on the fridge. Explain it to the kids. Use icons or pictures to help
younger children understand where they will be residing. After providing your
best explanation, tell the kids that, if they have questions, they can come to
you, and that you will do your level best to answer them honestly and
Giving the kids knowledge of the schedule that is in place for them reassures
them that their world is not spinning totally out of control.
3. Prepare a checklist of all of the "essentials"
the child will need as he/she shuttles between the different households. Place
it in his/her backpack. Establish the habit (or, with older children,
encourage the habit) of using the checklist to ensure that the child has all
of the required items before leaving for the "other" house.
Laminate the checklist or place it in a protective plastic sheet. Keep a
backup copy of this checklist on file.
To eliminate last minute confusion and chaos, encourage the kids to gather all
of these essentials together the night before they make the transition.
4. Living out of a suitcase soon becomes an ordeal for
anyone. If possible, have sufficient clothes on hand at either house so the
kids don't need to drag their clothing for their stay with them.
For any clothing or equipment that needs to go back and forth, we suggest that
it be cleaned by the household the child is leaving, so he/she doesn't arrive
with a suitcase of dirty laundry and/or sporting equipment.
5. Even if you know that you will miss
the kids terribly, wish them a good stay at the home of their other parent,
and reassure them you will be OK in their absence. Don't create the impression
you will be in distress, or overwhelmed with loneliness while they are gone.
Doing so is likely to make the kids feel terribly stressed and worried the
whole time they are away.
6. Keep in mind that the custodial
parent generally has the final say over the children's schedule while those
children are in their care. Accordingly:
Don't make scheduling changes that would impact the other household without
first securing their agreement and support.
Don't expect the other parent to follow through with sanctions you have
imposed on a child while that child was in your care, and
Don't expect the other household to do things the way you feel they should be
done--even if these are things that you feel very strongly about.
7. Make it abundantly clear to your
kids that you expect them to follow the rules of your house when they are with
you; and the rules of their other parent's house when they are staying there.
Your kids will hear this proclamation as a powerful message of love.
8. Be on time, every time,
when you are to pick up or deliver the kids. If you cannot be there at the
designated time, ensure that one of your "back-ups" is.
Grandparents and other family members are often excellent and very available
resources. Don't expect the other house to be your last minute
If you depart from being consistently punctual, the other household is very
likely to begin doing the same; and you will have no basis for calling them to
account over it.
9. If face-to-face contact occurs with the other parent
when you are delivering the kids, keep the discussion calm and pleasant. Avoid
"dealing with issues" at this time. (See point 18 below.) If it
doesn't seem possible to avoid conflict at these times, try waiting in your
car, or at the curb, until you see the kids enter the house safely. If
necessary, use a neutral pick-up and drop-off location.
10. Allow for some
"adjustment" time when the child arrives at your house. Ask the
child what kinds of activities would help them to settle into being in the
"new" house. Some kids might want a bit of quiet time. Others may
want to connect with the household they have just left by placing a telephone
call. Some might want a snack and/or to be updated on the agenda that is in
place for their stay.
Keep in mind that your moods are also likely to fluctuate with the
visitation schedule, and become much more difficult in anticipation of the
kids’ arrival and departure.
11. If a separate room is not available
for each child, provide each with a private place where they can leave
belongings in your home. Ensure that, in the child’s absence, no one is
allowed to access this space and/or disturb the things the child has placed
12. All children (both full- and
part-time) need to participate in family meetings, and be involved in helping
with chores and the upkeep of the house in order to develop a sense of
belonging in your family.
Part-time kids won't want to be at your house if they don't feel they belong;
and the full-time children staying in your home will resent their special
(visitor) status. Use this
step-by-step guide to begin holding family meetings
that really work.
13. If possible, try to keep meal times
similar at the two households. Consider the following:
14. Strive to keep the child's bedtime and sleep routine
similar between the two houses. The essential rules of good sleep hygiene are
15. Appreciate that sorting out the name your partner's
children will call you is a very big deal. Don't expect them to
call you "mom" or "dad". Requiring them to do so it
tantamount to requiring them to be disloyal to their biological parent. Your
best strategy is to take their lead, and find out what labels they are
comfortable using to address you.
16. Recognize that the children are
going to need to figure out what to call the new "residential unit".
Be open to options such as: family, stepfamily, my new family, the Smith-Jones
family, my dad's house, etc. To remove the awkwardness, you might say to the
kids, "Just so others don't get confused, let's decide on a name for the
family that we have when you are here. What's a name that would work well for
17. Connect with your kids on a regular (and ideally a
daily) basis by telephone, videoconference or email when they are staying with
their other parent. Make/receive these calls within the window of time
explicitly designated for such contact. If no such window of time has been
designated, restrict the calls to a reasonable time (e.g., not during the
supper hour or right before the child's bedtime). Encourage the other parent
to do the same when the kids are staying with you.
Tip: Keep in mind that it will be
difficult for your child to take your calls if the other household is
displeased with the time(s) you make your calls, or how frequently you call.
18. Do not communicate with the "other" parent through the children, or “pump” the kids for information about the other parent. Doing so puts the kids in a terrible loyalty conflict. Strive to communicate directly with the other parent if possible; or by way of telephone, voice mail, text, email, fax, or a neutral third party if direct communication isn't possible. Keep the communication focused on the needs of the kids.
Tip: Many people start a new email account and use it exclusively for communicating about the children. Doing so provides a written and dated record of the correspondence.
19. Contact your child's school. Ask
them to send notices and reports to both households. Provide the school with the
child's schedule, a list of people who are permitted to pick up the children,
contact information for all of their caregivers, and any pertinent medical
Anyone needing to pick up a child at the school should know: the child’s grade
and his/her teacher’s name, the time the child will be discharged, the door
the child will use, any relevant bus information (number, route, etc), the route
that the child travels if/when they walk or ride their bike, the names of any
friends they may be with, and any locations where they might stop on their way
Tip: If parents from the two households are unable to conduct
themselves civilly when in one another's presence, ask the school to schedule
separate meetings rather than calling meetings where all of the adults would be
in attendance at the same time.
20. If conflict erupts between a visiting and a full-time
child, send them off together to develop their own solution to the problem. Tell
them: "When you have figured out a solution that works for you both, come
and explain it to me; and convince me that it will work. If you can't find a
workable solution that you can both agree to, you'll have to live with mine--and
I'm almost certain neither of you will like my solution to this problem".
21. Allow for some adjustment time as
the child is about to leave your house. Keep in mind that if you schedule things
for the kids when they first arrive or as they are about to leave (without
consulting them about their preferences), the activities you put in place are
not likely to be well received.
Remember, your moods are not likely to be their best at these times
Additional Points to Consider:
In general, children between the ages of 9 to 15 years are likely to show the greatest difficulty adjusting to the new household. Younger children tend to be more flexible and seem able to accept most things without too much difficulty. In contrast, when kids approach 16 years of age, they usually begin disengaging with the family to invest more into their relationships with their peers--a process that is important for their normal development. Accordingly, with kids who are 16 or older, it is wise to keep your expectations regarding their investment and participation in the family well in check. Otherwise you are likely to be disappointed. For additional information on the needs and issues that children at varying age levels are likely to present see Understanding a Child's Realities or Mediating Agreement on Parenting Issues.
Some children, and notably those with learning difficulties who have become accustomed to a regular, well-structured, after-school routine, may literally be unable to adapt to the routines of the "new" household, and begin to display declining achievement, moods and/or behaviour. For these children, it may be necessary to introduce their original schedule in the "new" house for a period of time. After they "settle in", they are much more likely to be able to manage with any changes that must be made--especially if these changes are introduced gradually.
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