Having two places to call home -- Mom's and Dad's -- can be confusing to children, especially when a family is in the early stages of a separation or divorce. "Moving from household to household means change, and kids are not known for welcoming disruptions to their routines," says William Doherty, Ph.D., director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. Then again, a child also has the excitement of a new home, a new bedroom to decorate and a new neighborhood to explore. Whether you're setting up a new address or maintaining the present one in the midst of your separation or divorce, there are lots of things you can do to make the switch to dual residency more comfortable for everyone.
Let your child have a say. If you're establishing a new home, involve your child in the furnishing and decorating of her new bedroom, suggests Judith Ruskay Rabinor, Ph.D., author of Befriending Your Ex After Divorce: Making Life Better for You, Your Kids and Yes, Your Ex. For instance, your child might help pick out the paint color or some cool new sheets.
Make the new place familiar. Too much newness or change can be overwhelming to a child. She'll feel more comfortable in her new environment with some familiar belongings around her. If there's something special at your former home that you know she adores (like a butterfly night-light), see if you can find the same item for your new home, or make sure it's in a "go bag" that travels with her from house to house. Talk to your ex about items that you can split between households. Even ordinary items like plates and cups from a beloved princess collection can be reassuring as your child adjusts to new surroundings.
Resist the urge to compete. The parent who remains at the first home may find it hard to listen to her child gush about how much she loves her new room at the other parent's place. But this isn't the time to try to one-up the other parent by giving your child's old room a big makeover. "The last thing a child needs at this point is more change," Dr. Doherty says. In fact, your child likely craves the comfort and familiarity of the room she's long called her own. Try to muster some enthusiasm for your child's new digs, though. You don't want her to feel guilty for enjoying her time there.
Come up with a packing plan. Constantly packing and unpacking for trips between homes can be exhausting for everyone. It also ups this risk that items will be forgotten. To alleviate this stress, both homes always should have certain items on hand, such as toiletries, pajamas, spare clothing, books, and movies. Help younger children pack their bags a day in advance. This can serve as another reminder to your child that she will be leaving for the other parent's house soon.
Keep dual calendars. Use visual reminders in both homes -- such as a calendar with Mom's days highlighted in one color and Dad?s days marked in another -- to help your child keep track of where he will be and when. "It's a lot of work to keep things flowing smoothly while shuttling kids back and forth. A written, visible schedule benefits everyone," says Arianna Jeret, a divorce mediator and coach in Redondo Beach, California.
Find some common ground. When Jeret and her husband split, they came up with three rules that their two sons, ages 4 and 9, were expected to follow in both homes. They include:
"These rules are written on whiteboards in both homes for the kids to see," Jeret says. Not only does this step ensure that your child knows what is expected of her regardless of where he is living, it also sends the message that even though Mom and Dad are no longer married, they are still committed to parenting as a team.
Be low-key about arrivals. Children often need time to adjust when they make the switch between houses. Come up with a routine to help smooth the transition. You can plan the same favorite meal, read a book together, or play a game.
Determine roles on switch days. Experts typically suggest that the parent who has been keeping the child be the one to drop her off at the other parent's home when it's time to make the transition. This ensures that you don't interrupt a special moment by showing up at the other parent's home to take the child away too early.