As parents, we often glide through a multitude of changes without so much as batting an eye.  After all, it comes with the territory.

Lauren wakes up with a fever so you adjust your schedule, make a couple of calls and work from home that day.  Evan surprises you with a notice about baseball practice across town and the dinner you had planned turns into picking up a pizza on the way home.  Sure, some of those changes are stressful, but overall most of us have cultivated the ability to roll with the punches.

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For our children, however, living life on the fly isn’t so easy, especially when Mom and Dad live in different homes. Two homes involves juggling a schedule that may or may not be predictable, dealing with different parenting styles, different rules, different places, different people and different ways of being a family.

In addition to dealing with a multitude of differences, shifting back and forth between homes has the potential to create some serious emotional angst for kids.  Johnny comes back from Dad’s bouncing off the walls and testing limits, while Melanie spirals into a never-ending whine fest after being with Mom for the weekend.

End result – you get stuck picking up the pieces and getting life back on track. The worst part—it starts all over again the next time they leave. If you’re tired of going through the same ole, same ole when your kids come back, here’s a simple strategy you can use to get back to calm and carry on.

Understanding the problem
Children tend to function best when they know what to expect. For many, moving between Mom’s house and Dad’s house literally feels like transitioning between two worlds.  When children don’t have an opportunity to regroup often their anxiety levels go through the roof.  Without our guidance and support, kids tend to manage those feelings by acting them out (usually in ways that drive us crazy). To offset transitional stress children need predictability and emotional space. One way you can help kids cope is by creating a consistent environment that helps children shift gears more easily.

What to do?

  • Notice when, what and where
    Pay attention to when your kids are having a difficult time shifting gears.  For some it may be that the anxiety hits right before leaving your home, for other kids it could be when they return after spending time with the other parent.

It can also be helpful to notice what other contributing factors are at work. For instance, do your children react the same way every time they come back from spending time with Dad or only after they’ve been away for a weekend?

Does where make a difference? Do they respond differently when Mom picks them up from school as opposed to your house?

If you discover a pattern or factors that seem to be influencing how your children respond, do your best to make adjustments in how transitions between households take place.

  • Create a ritual
    A transition ritual involves creating a structured and predictable environment for your child every time they enter or leave your home.  Lets say Natalie goes into melt down mode every time Mom drops her off for the weekend. One way Dad could help Natalie is by choosing an activity they could do together as soon as she crosses his threshold.  Perhaps Natalie loves to color and draw.  When Natalie arrives she and Dad could spend 30 minutes coloring together.  While coloring, they could chat about Natalie’s week with Mom and what the rest of the weekend with Dad will look like.  Natalie has a chance to decompress and Dad has a way to help Natalie transition into their routine.

Keep in mind it’s best if the activity matches your children’s personality and energy level.  For active kids you might consider going for a walk around the block, shooting hoops or playing in the backyard.  Kids who are more low-key might do better engaging in an activity like drawing, putting a puzzle together, reading a book or playing a game.

For older children, meal times can be a special way of gathering.  In our family, when my bonus children were transitioning into our home we would use a sit down meal as a way to bring everyone together. This gave us an opportunity to talk about what we had planned for the weekend and catch up on things we missed while we were apart.

  • Stay consistent
    In order to see the benefits of structuring transitions it’s important to stay consistent. Be sure to plan ahead by scheduling an adequate amount of time. Further do your best to engage children in the ritual every single time or at least until you see some significant changes in how they are handling things.
  • Keep it enjoyable
    Whatever you choose to do with your kids, do your best to keep it relaxing, tension free and enjoyable. Not only will transitions smooth out, but you may also discover some treasured memories get created along the way.

About Christina McGhee

Christina McGhee, MSW is an internationally recognized divorce coach, speaker and author of the highly acclaimed book, Parenting Apart: How separated and divorced parents can raise happy and secure kids.

Christina, dubbed the “divorce coach by the UK press, gained worldwide attention for her work with three British families in the Channel 4 documentary “How to Divorce Without Screwing Up Your Kids.” She has been featured on television, radio and in print around the US and abroad.

When she is not speaking or coaching, Christina does outreach around the documentary SPLIT, a compelling film about how divorce really feels for kids.

Married for over twenty-years, Christina and her husband live near Houston, Texas. As a stepmom and a mom of four, she has extensive on-the-job training as a chauffeur, negotiator, short-order cook, scheduler extraordinaire and finder of all things lost.