If you haven’t yet experienced your child spending a weekend or more away from you to visit their other parent, you will soon. While you may be expecting hugs and kisses when they return, you may instead find an unenthusiastic greeting, dirty laundry, and more sass than you know what to do with. If this sounds like what you’ve experienced, or are worried about, have no fear.
While we can’t help you with the dirty laundry, we have some tips to get you and your child reconnected again.
As much as you can, keep the peace with the other parent. We understand that this can be easier said than done, especially if you are dealing with a particularly difficult ex-spouse or the wounds are still fresh on your own emotional scars. Approach your interactions and communications with them with all the detached professionalism of a boardroom meeting.
In a nutshell: Be kind. Speak less. Let technology help.
Next, set the expectation in your mind that transitions are difficult for young kids, especially when they are being sent back and forth between two people they love very much who no longer like each other.
The reason they arrive home sleepy, sulky, or sassy could have a lot to do with being torn between two different homes, possibly with neither one feeling like their actual home.
Or, they may have had a great time staying up as late as they wanted, doing whatever they wanted, and now it’s back to reality and possibly, school. That’s a hard reality hit for a little one. Have compassion. They are dealing with a lot of feelings right now.
Greet your child with whatever embrace they feel comfortable offering you–a hug, a fist bump, a grunt–and then slow things down – no need to fire off a million questions at them in rapid succession right now. Let them know that you missed them and want to know every little thing that happened in their lives while you were apart. Make sure they know you will be there to listen when they’re ready to talk. (Sometimes their memory comes to them slowly, just like ours do, so they may not remember everything all at once.)
Let go of any desire to hear the dirt on your ex, and don’t engage in a Dad says/Mom says debate. It takes a village to raise a child, and some of that village may be more lenient in their rules (but there can be value in that, too).
Hold off on doing busy work during this transition time. Use your co-parenting apps at a different time to help you manage some of those extra tasks.
Avoid talking just for the sake of filling space. Be still and embrace the quiet. Sit with your child and offer a supportive phrase like, “I bet going from one home to another isn’t easy.”
Allow them to vent or cry if necessary.
Some refer to this as “attending” or “mindful play.” Here’s how you start:
After your child has had time to decompress, look at them and say, “I want to do whatever you want to do for the next ___ minutes.”
Come up with an amount of time that you know you can stick to without getting distracted. Five minutes is a great start, and then you can add on from there after you and your children get the hang of it.
During your special time, allow your child to open up and feel bonded with you again. To achieve this, avoid making suggestions about what you should play or introducing your own characters into your pretend time. Throw rules out the window–no reminders to share or take turns, no moral lessons, competition, instructions on how to do something, or questions to get them talking more.
Let go of the control and let your child take over for a while. This step may be more challenging than it sounds, but it will get easier over time and is one reason we recommend starting with just five to ten minutes and increasing from there.
Don’t be surprised to find that many kids will start to use this time as a way to work out their feelings. For example, your child might make you obey the silliest of rules that they spring on you suddenly–they are working out their feelings around rules they have to follow or their thoughts about control. Your child may play with a baby doll and pack her bags to let her spend the night off–they might be working out feelings of separation. Observe and play along as much as you can without taking over, and you will soon start to pick up on little cues about what your child is thinking.
Pre-teens and teens won’t likely opt to play pretend during their quality time with you, so you won’t discover their innermost feelings through watching them play with toys. Their “play” time looks closer to that of an adult, but it still counts as play and working things out. They might choose to talk with you, play a card or board game, shoot some hoops, or even help you cook in the kitchen.
The changes that occur during you and your child’s quality time can change you more than them. Often, parents report becoming more empathetic and compassionate towards what their little ones go through–two homes, two parents, two sets of rules, moving their belongings from home to home, and leaving neighborhood friends behind. They are going through so much, and we adults sometimes downplay the significance.
Do not be alarmed if you notice more tantrums or crying episodes at the end of quality time. As your kids reconnect with you, they’ll start to let their guards down and show their true feelings. Don’t be turned off by this; this is a good sign that they feel safe in your care. Let them have their time to cry and express their feelings. The rest of your day with them is likely to be drama free.
As a co-parent with part-time communication with your children, you can still retain and develop the bond you have with your child. Acknowledge that life is stressful for your children, too, even if you and the co-parent maintain peaceful communication. They are bonding with two different parents who have different rules and traits. Make yourself available to your child, remaining neutral about their other parent. Set aside quality time where your little one calls the shots, and you are undistracted by busy work. Download a co-parenting app to take some of that work off your shoulders, and start re-bonding with your child.
Check out our other blogs for more information on co-parenting apps that give you more time with your child or tips on dealing with a high-conflict ex-spouse.