Kids First #3: How to Decide Where Kids Will Live After Divorce

This is the third in a multi-part series on practical steps parents can take to reduce the negative impact of separation and divorce on children. These blog posts are based on the book “Kids First: What Kids Want Grown-Ups to Know about Separation and Divorce”.  The book “Kids First” is a collection of the knowledge gained by the staff and volunteers at the Kids First Center over the 25 years they have been working with families going through separation and divorce.

In the last post, we talked about how to tell your kids that you and your spouse are divorcing and how to begin to learn to co-parent with your former spouse. In this post, we’ll talk about factors to consider when deciding where kids will live and some ground rules for handling the transition between homes.

Be Mindful of the Language You Use to Talk about Divorce

Making reasonable decisions about what is in your children’s best interest is tough ― especially when emotions are exploding and parents are working hard just to keep their own lives together. Being mindful of the language you use and finding the right words to avoid making matters worse are in important first step in the transition.

Words about separation may inadvertently convey negative feelings for the parents and the kids. Here are some suggestions for what words to use to reduce negativity:

  • The marriage ended instead of the marriage failed
  • Parenting arrangements instead of custody and visitation
  • Contact with or time with instead of lives with and visit

Factors to Consider when Deciding Residential Arrangements

Kids are amazingly flexible and a wide variety of residential arrangements can be healthy for them. Common post-divorce living  arrangements run the gamut and can go from 50/50 time at both homes, to living mostly at one house, to limited or no contact with the other parent. What works best for your kids includes many factors.

The range of living arrangement options is often limited by the circumstances of the parents lives. Factors that impact when and how much time kids spend at each house include whether the parents live close by or far apart, whether they work the same hours or opposite shifts, and the kids school or extra-circular activities. We recommend that you start by writing down the factors you and your former spouse need to consider when discussing at whose house the kids will spend time and when. This will help you negotiate from a position of logic and logistics instead of blind emotion.

As in many aspects of life, children of different ages have different needs. In general, infants and young children need more time with their primary caretaker and consistency around their basic needs being met. As children get older, developing friendships with other kids and time for extra-circular activities become more important. This is why parents need to listen to their children and re-evaluate living arrangements from time to time.  

Caring parents may differ as to what is in the best interest of their kids when deciding residential arrangements. Suggestions to find the proper balance between different perceptions include:

  • Honestly ask yourself, “Who will really benefit from what I am proposing?”
  • Many kids complain that they are forced into a schedule and resent it. Get your kids input and try to help them feel like they are part of the decision making process.
  • Think about how the kids will look at their post separation childhood when they are adults.
  • It may be difficult, but listen to the other parent. Listening doesn’t mean you have to agree with them but it may give you information to ponder.
  • Seek out the advice of professionals.

Negotiating a Residential Arrangement for Your Children

Some parents make the mistake of thinking they are the better parent if they fight for and get more time with their kids. That is not the case. Sometimes doing what is best for your kids means letting go of the conflict even if it means losing some with them. Down the road, when kids reflect on how the divorce affected their lives they will remember more about your attitude and how you communicated than exactly how much time they spent with you.

When negotiating where your kids will live, work out and write down as many specifics of the agreement in advance. Be as specific as possible in the written document. It may seem like more effort than is necessary but a written document can be extremely helpful down the road when memories of what was greed upon fade or change.

Handling Transitions

Keep in mind that transitions are notoriously difficult for children. Just getting out the door in the morning for school is a monumental task but children living between households have to contend with different environments, different roles, and different expectations. Don’t just expect your children to change gears and settle into your rhythm. Give them time to settle in.

In addition to the challenges of making the physical move from parent to parent, many children get tense because they fear there will be conflict between parents. That is why it is in your children’s best interest to support the other parent during transitions. Supporting your co-parent does not mean you have to like or condone everything they do. But if you want to help reduce your children’s stress level, reinforce to your kids that:

  1. It's okay to have fun and enjoy time at the other parents home
  2. It's okay to look forward to seeing the other parent at transition time three
  3. It's okay to feel sad about leaving one parent behind and missing what is at that house

The physical transition itself may seem simple enough. After all it’s, just passing kids from one parent to another, right? Wrong! There are easy mistakes parents can make that can turn a simple transaction into an traumatic experience. Remind yourself that the most important thing during a transition is to make sure it goes smooth for your kids. To create a smooth transition, do the following:

  • Develop some rules and a consistent process for transitions to make them as stress-free as possible.
  • Have at least one co-parenting conversation per week so you don’t need to discuss schedules and issues during the transition in front of the kids.
  • Do not use the transition to ask probing questions about the personal life of the other parent.
  • Be positive and listen non-judgmentally to what the children want to tell you.
  • Be on time!
  • Adopt a businesslike approach. Say hello to the other parent and whoever he or she is with.

Even when parents communicate easily and transitions go smoothly, kids may complain about having to go back and forth between homes. It is not unusual for kids to complain to both parents about not wanting to go to the other parent in order to show their loyalty to the parent they are leaving. When this happens, gently reinforce the importance of the child's relationship with the other parent and stick to the agreed upon transition schedule.

Deciding what’s best for your kids when it comes to residential arrangements and handling transitions productively are some of the most difficult aspects of separation and divorce. If you are struggling with these or other divorce issues in Connecticut, contact our Enfield, CT office and we will do our best to put you in touch the right professional for your situation.