Transitions can be difficult for children, especially young children or kids with anxiety issues. One of the most difficult transitions for children can be moving back and forth between parents’ homes and dealing with joint custody schedules. One of the unfortunate effects of divorce on children can be the disruption caused by regular moves back and forth. At the same time, those moves are necessary in order for the children to have the strong relationships they need with both parents.
What is a parent to do when a child cries or resists, going from one parent’s home to the other’s for parenting time? Seeing your child upset can bring out a range of responses in you. You might feel like crying yourself; you might feel frustrated; you might even feel like indulging your child’s wish not to go with the other parent. You might even feel guilty for making your child go against their wishes, or a nagging fear that their desire not to go is justified by something they experience at the other parent’s home.
Whatever you are feeling, it is never pleasant for you or your child when there is a meltdown at parenting time transitions. And it’s not pleasant for the other parent to have their time with the child start with tears and tantrums. Let’s talk about why children cry when it’s time to move from one parent’s home to the others, and what you can do to make this aspect of co-parenting easier on everyone.
There are a number of reasons children may cry at parenting time transitions. One is simply the nature of transitions themselves, coupled with your child’s developmental stage. Young children tend to live in the now, and may struggle with having to change from one activity to another, even one they enjoy. Every parent who has dropped a crying child off to a preschool or kindergarten class that they loved knows the truth of that statement. The good news is that once children are absorbed in the new activity, the tears dry and are forgotten quickly.
Along similar lines, a child may cry at parenting time transitions not because they don’t like being with their other parent, but because they are settled and comfortable with you. After all, they have been at home with you for a while, and feel safe and secure in the home you have created for them. Chances are they will settle in just fine at their other home, too. Of course, that means they will need to face the same disruption of leaving one home for another in a few days. For this reason, some parenting time experts recommend longer stints in each home to avoid children feeling as if they are being slung back and forth like a backpack every few days.
During a marriage, children are often with one parent or the other. But after a divorce, the transition between households can serve as a stark reminder that things are really different now: mom and dad are really divorced, and having two homes is the “new normal.” So crying at transition time can be something of an ongoing grief reaction to your divorce: your child is continuing to grieve the end of your marriage or relationship.
There also exists the possibility that your child’s tears are a reaction to your own emotions. Children depend on their parents for survival, so they become very good at picking up on our emotions, even when we think we’re keeping those emotions under wraps. Your child might really be excited to see their other parent, but feel guilty for leaving you, especially if you will be alone. Your child may not be consciously putting on a sad face to make you feel better; the tears could be an unconscious response to their own internal conflict between wanting to see one parent and not wanting to hurt the other.
Of course, there is also the chance that your child is genuinely, and legitimately, afraid to go with the other parent for some reason. It may be as simple as having had a bad dream the last time they were at the other parent’s house, or as serious as the child having been abused while in the other parent’s care. You shouldn’t leap to the worst possible conclusion, especially if the other parent doesn’t have a history of abuse or neglect. But keep your eyes and ears open, listen to your child, and trust your gut. If you decide you need to deny parenting time for the child’s protection, contact an experienced family law attorney immediately to discuss next steps.
How to make switching back and forth between parents’ homes easier for your child depends on why they are struggling in the first place. A child who struggles with being forced to switch between activities may benefit from repeated, upbeat reminders about when parenting time will take place. You could also give your child a calendar with different colored stickers placed on the days they spend with each parent. You can cross off each day at bedtime so they can see “how many sleeps” until the next transition. If the other parent is willing, allow the child to take the calendar to their other home so the other parent can continue this activity.
Avoid letting children think that parenting time is optional, or that you feel bad about making them go. Be firm but cheerful about it. If possible, give your child choices to help them feel more in control: “Do you want to meet Dad in the driveway, or wait in the house until he rings the doorbell?” Focus on how much they will enjoy their time with the other parent, and don’t dwell on how much you will miss them.
At the same time, don’t make your child feel bad for crying or suggest that seeing them cry will make the other parent upset. Crying is a way to express emotions children don’t have words for, and they have a right to those feelings. Acknowledge the feelings, and give your child words if you can: “I know you were having fun playing here, and it’s hard to stop to get ready to go to Mom’s house. It’s okay to feel frustrated, but it’s time to enjoy your time with Mom. Your toys will be here when you get back, and so will I.”
Helping your kids through divorce and the aftermath is challenging. It helps to remember that when our kids are overwhelmed, they don’t mean to overwhelm us, too; instead, they are counting on us to bring the calm they need.