How to Make Shuttling Between Households Easier
© Bill Nodrick, PhD & Bev Nodrick, RSW 2008
Shuttling between different households is the norm for many children living in
stepfamilies. These “transitions” can be exceptionally trying for everyone
involved. Following are a number of 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.
Tip: The kids involved
will be much happier if their schedule is not always being disrupted by “last
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 completely.
Tip: 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.
Tip: Laminate the
checklist or place it in a protective plastic sheet. Keep a backup copy of
this checklist on file.
Tip: 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.
Tip: 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:
a) Don't make
scheduling changes that would impact the other household without first
securing their agreement and support.
b) 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
c) 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.
Tip: 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.
Tip: Grandparents and
other family members are often excellent and very available resources. Don't
expect the other house to be your last minute back up.
Tip: 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
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.
Tip: 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 there.
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.
Tip: 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
(available for download at www.stepfamily.ca) 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 as follow:
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 you?"
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, 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. Another option is the
(available for download at www.stepfamily.ca)
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 information.
Tip: 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 home.
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.
Tip: Remember, your
moods are not likely to be their best at these times either.
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.
[Both are available for free download from the Stepfamily Foundation of Alberta
web site, www.stepfamily.ca]
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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