Co-Parenting: Helping Kids Transition from One House to the Other (and Back Again)


There are certainly many challenges that arise when you’re going through a divorce. But these challenges are not just for you, they’re challenges for your kids, too. And when your children are little – under 8 years old –  it’s sometimes more difficult to communicate with them about what’s going on between their parents. A lot gets lost in translation when your kids divide their time between both parent’s houses. It’s hard to get them to understand that their new normal is having two homes. So Jennifer Gallagher, parent coach and owner of Single Parenting Solutions, has developed some tools to ease your child’s “transition” from house to house.

What is “transitioning?”

From a child development standpoint, it’s when a child goes from one event to another, and usually, it’s going from a favorable event to an unfavorable event. This doesn’t necessarily mean that one parent’s house is the favorable situation and the other parent’s house is unfavorable. However, your child may feel more comfortable at one home over the other one, and this is where the challenge lies. Children will express their frustration through their mood, their behavior, and it can vary in different degrees since there are many different factors that play into it. It’s a challenge for parents to decode what’s going on and help their child navigate their distress. Children of two homes, and in a co-parenting family, have more transition than children who live in one home because they aren’t constantly moving from home to home. And in the two-home scenario, if both parents work, the children may go to an extended care situation, which can add yet another layer of transitioning.

The concept of time is different for kids.

Time isn’t the same for kids as it is for grown-ups. A few minutes to us can seem like a long time to the kids. So let’s say it’s almost five o’clock, and it’s time to start getting your child in the car for drop-off. They hear you tell them it’s time to go, but they want to keep building that Lego tower. They don’t want to stop what they’re doing, even though they love their other parent’s house. They want to see the other parent, but that Lego tower takes precedence over that relationship because that’s what they want to do right now. Kids are very egocentric. They’re very much in their own world, so they’re not really thinking of the big picture. They’re just thinking of what they’re doing in the present moment.

The second home is another world.

Going from one home to the other is an extreme transition because your child is moving between “worlds.” Each parent’s home is a completely different space. The act of moving from space to space destabilizes their sense of place. That’s why it’s important to create stability when transitioning. When Jessica was getting divorced, navigating those typical childhood transition situations was wrapped up in everything that she and her ex were dealing with. One of the things that helped them with the transitions from one home to the other was keeping the same nanny. Their nanny would go back and forth with the kids, so whoever’s house they were going to, she was there. She was a stable and calming presence, and no matter where the kids were going or what they were doing, they didn’t have to worry because the beloved nanny was always there. Jessica says the idea of trying to make transitions eraser wasn’t even the impetus for how they did it, but she feels like they inadvertently handled the transition from home to home in a way that really benefited her kids. She always jokes, “I’ll never know how screwed up my kids really are until they’re in their 30’s in therapy, but they seem to be well adjusted right now.”

Jen believes it’s important to have a source of comfort for your kids. Whether that be the nanny who is always there or their baby blanket that goes back and forth, kids need something that feels stable and makes them feel safe. Because of the constant moving between house to house, it’s difficult to keep track of every comfort item, so Jen made sure to have a duplicate of her son’s secure stuffed animal, one for her home, and one for the dad’s home.

What are some tips to make kids feel secure with the transition?

Because children are visual learners, having a visual calendar is very, very important. It’s been very effective in situations of separation anxiety. Creating a visual calendar consists of taking physical photographs of the different activities that they do throughout the day, from start to finish. Jen keeps a calendar like this on the fridge at her son’s eye level. The calendar visually takes him from waking up to brushing his teeth to getting dressed in his school uniform, to the door of his classroom. Because there are more transitions for young children of divorce, it’s often more difficult to transition and separate when it’s time to go to school. They’re already going from parent A’s house to parent B’s house, and now school is another place they must go. This added layer of transition can trigger major separation anxiety for some kids.

Bedtime is also an extremely vulnerable point for any young child, especially if they have separation anxiety and are missing one parent. Regardless of how good the day was, they can get cranky and overwhelmed. Those big feelings and those big emotions can come out to a greater extent. Jen recommends that her clients have a “night-night book” (and this is something she does personally). Jen’s is just a dollar store photo album filled with pictures of her and her son together. She suggests picking out all the photos together, as an activity, while you explain what the book is for, and then keeping it by their bed at the other parent’s house. If Jen’s son misses her when he’s at his dad’s house, he can look at the night-night book. Jen follows her son’s lead, and he chose not to keep one of his dad at Jen’s home. However, they do have photos of him and his dad throughout his room at her house, including some of the three of them together. They also have photos in their living room, and on the fridge, with a photo of his dad on the visual calendar. It’s challenging for Jen to have these pictures of her ex around, but she strategically placed the pictures so you can’t really see them unless you’re at her son’s eye level, so she doesn’t have to look at them all the time. The idea is to know you have options and different ways of creating a space where your child is able to “see” the other parent and feel comfortable, no matter where they are.

What happens when the rules of bedtime are different from house to house?

The idea of rules and schedules being different from one house to another can also play into a  child’s confusion towards their parents’ parenting styles. Now that they have two different expectations on everything in the home, it’s confusing. Communicating to your child about the different house rules and expectations in a calm way will help to ease their confusion. It sucks to be perceived as the “strict,” “no fun” parent. It can turn into one of the biggest triggers because then you’re the bad guy for having rules.

For little kids, if you get creative, you can divert the conversation in a playful way by bringing up all the fun things they do with the other parent, so they know they will have fun there. So, in Jen’s particular situation, she’s big on dramatic play, so they dress up, they go outside with water blasters, and they do all those kinds of creative activities. But with his dad, he does a lot of sports and outdoor activities, like going on nature hikes. When Jen talks about going to his dad’s house, she’ll say to her son: “I wonder what type of adventures you’re going to do at daddy’s house?” That helps him transition easier and have that sense of calmness. Then he becomes excited to go to the next place.

It’s a lot of pressure because you feel like there’s a little bit of competition and you want to be validated that what you’re doing makes your child happy. You want your kid to be comfortable in both homes, but you also want to be the parent who’s a little bit “better” than the other. That’s where that whole shift comes into play within parents. Jen puts it this way: if her son is unloading on her, and if he is having a hard time with her, developmentally, that indicates that he feels safe enough to release all his energy on her. No matter how uncomfortable she feels, Jen knows she has the privilege of being his safe person.

Transitioning is something that every parent in divorce deals with.

No matter what ages your kids are, children face issues with transitioning from home to home and between different spaces when their parents are going through a divorce. Just remember that you’re not alone – there is a whole community of people going through the same challenges and there are places you can turn for support and resources. You know your child the best, and will be able to determine the right ways to help them transition through this period.

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