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Kids carry baggage when they shuttle between parent households

Does your child’s behavior change before and/or after visiting their other parent? 

Children whose parents or guardians share custody need a period of adjustment prior to and after a visit with the other parent. Some children become energetic and attention seeking, while others may become quiet or subdued and withdraw emotionally before and/or after making the transition between households. These seem to be fairly common emotions for kids as they cope with saying goodbye to one parent and settling into the other parent’s routine.   

Allow them some time to adjust.  

For the past 10 years, my son, The Boy, has traveled between my home, where he is the only child, to his father’s home in Arkansas where he has six siblings. That is a huge transition! And I know that it is overwhelming without him having to express his feelings. He worries about forgetting favorite items, not having the same products in Arkansas that he uses in Pennsylvania; he frets about eating different food, missing time with his friends and not having regular interactions with me.  

These feelings are valid and should be acknowledged by both households.  

The Boy’s father and I have not always had a great co-parenting relationship. We would exchange our son without exchanging more than five words. It created an environment where The Boy, who stays with his father for anywhere from two weeks to the entire summer, did not have any of the comforts of my house and was afraid to tell his father what he missed. He would cry after phone calls with me and his father would get upset with him for crying. I stopped calling The Boy during visits with his dad.  

2020 was a year filled with so much uncertainty, it forced his father and me to have a conversation about how to make The Boy’s transition from one home to the next possible, less awkward, and emotionally easier for all of us. I needed a break from being a parent, a playmate, a teacher, and everything in between and his father wanted to be with his son for their annual visit. We were able to talk through our feelings and frustrations and create a space for The Boy to tell us how he feels, what he needs to make him comfortable during visits to Arkansas, and to admit that he misses his other parent, friends and both sides of his family.   

We have established some rituals, or transition traditions, to mentally prepare The Boy for his trips and his return home. I encourage him to call his father, siblings, and bonus mom more regularly leading up to his trip to make sure he understands the dynamics among his siblings and extended family members. We set aside periods of quality time just for the two of us, and give him plenty of opportunities to hang out with his Pennsylvania friends. Once arriving in Arkansas, his father and siblings give him time to adjust to going from a household of two to a household of nine or more! They have learned that if he is spending time alone, he isn’t upset or pouting, he just needs to decompress.  

Returning home can be a challenging transition, too! When he’s back in Pennsylvania, The Boy misses being annoyed by his little brother and hanging out with his favorite sister. To help with this loneliness, I encourage him to call or text his Arkansas siblings while he settles in. I also take this time to reconnect with him one-on-one and make sure he socializes with friends. I guide him back into his routine by allowing him a day or two to adjust to the time change and very different personalities of his parents.   

By creating an environment where children know what days they are going to be with the other parent and establishing a routine, they feel they have more control over their lives. Consistent communication may alleviate some stress associated with transitioning between two households. Knowing what to expect and the freedom to share their thoughts removes the guilt of missing the other parent, siblings, pets, or the experience of being in the “other” home.  

It is essential to make sure children feel consistently loved, heard, supported, and understood during the transitional period.  



Tashia James
Tashia James is a single mother of a teenage son. Through her blog, she hopes parents find the fun in parenting even through the most unpleasant moments of raising children. Connect with her on social media or email her at [email protected]

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