Dear Dr. Debbie,
My children’s father and I have lived separately for four years. We have been divorced for two. Our two children are in middle and high school. Although we should all be used to this back and forth lifestyle by now, the past few exchanges have been a little rocky. Typical tensions are about money, the kids’ homework (that they pack but don’t finish), and making adjustments to the visitation schedule around their friends and other activities.
I should mention that rather than a routine drop off place, he picks a different fast food restaurant or random parking lot each time. I put up with his controlling the kid exchange rather than add more issues of disagreement to the many we already have.
What are some reasonable guidelines for managing the kid swap to minimize the stress on everyone?
Happy to Be Single, But Not Totally Happy
Don’t miss last week’s column When and how tots learn to share — Good Parenting
Dear Not Totally Happy,
Some of the lingering effects of divorce, for all concerned, stem from the roles each ex plays regarding the children. As long as one parent pays child support to the other, there can be contention over money. An every other weekend parent may be hard pressed to carve out time to keep up with schoolwork. And planning around the children’s expanding social lives adds complexity to the life of a non-custodial parent.
Yes, there are guidelines for managing a visitation exchange. The key is to keep the focus on the children. Tensions and conflicts between the divorced couple must be kept out of it as much as possible.
- Make the exchange routine. Maybe the location isn’t worth arguing over, but everything from packing up to saying good-bye, and then your children’s return to you and their “own” home can have its reassuring rituals.
- Be punctual and flexible. Time with Dad is important for your children, so, much like a doctor’s appointment, do your best to be on time, and patient if there is a delay. If you could be waiting for a while, bring suitable entertainment.
- Share important updates in the children’s lives, perhaps by email, to give Dad a heads up about school and friends, and as conversation starters for his weekend with them. It is good for the children to see that Mom and Dad discuss them (civilly, of course). Your children are old enough to keep up their own communications with Dad between visits as well. At drop off, you can use these newsy topics to fill a brief and friendly conversation as you pass the children between you. The children can then add more details during the visit.
- Keep promises to your children, and don’t make them if you can’t. Only tell the children about plans you are sure of — yours and their dad’s, so they can see both parents as reliable.
- After a visit, let the children lead in their reporting on what they did and whom they saw. It would be nice if Dad filled you in, but in any case you don’t want the children to think they are your spies.
- Use a parent mediator or “post marriage” counselor to work out some of the issues between you so that your roles as exes aren’t played out when you are acting as mom and dad in front of the children. They need to see their parents as a team.
- If it’s too hard to be calm and civil with each other, use a third adult — a family member or a trusted family friend — as a neutral intermediary. The exchange might occur at this person’s home, or he or she might serve as transporter.
- Recognize that, due to the high incidence of school age children having a two-home family such as yours, teachers and friends may full well understand about your family’s tricky timetable.
You may find some reassurance from a support group for parents in your situation, or from online sites that pool wisdom from others’ experiences. Smoother visitation transitions are good for everyone.