How to help children with handovers

Like many adults might, children can find transitions between their parents’ homes tricky. Imagine a wintry Sunday afternoon after everyone has enjoyed a roast dinner, a family film and is feeling relaxed and suitably cosy. 4 pm arrives, and it’s time to pack up to travel to your other home in anticipation of a hectic, fun-filled school week ahead.

It is understandable, when you think of it like this, that some children show a reluctance to transition between parents. Often, it has little to do with their feelings towards their parents, and more to do with living in the moment and enjoying what is happening at a particular point in time.

If a child is resisting transitions and their other parent is concerned, there may of course be an underlying reason for a child’s expressed reluctance. But for families in which there is no welfare concern about either parent, here is a list of things that parents have fed back to us over the years (good and bad!) that it might be helpful to consider in order to support children’s transitions between their homes:

  • Some children are naturally more adaptable than others. If you have two or more children, for example, you may notice that one adjusts easily while the other is more reluctant. It may just be that different personalities need a little more support and time to transition. It can help to look at each child’s individual needs to offer optimum support.

  • It is usual for children to experience a host of parallel emotions as they transition between homes. They can be feeling a sense of loss and sadness, as well as experiencing happiness and excitement. This is all quite normal, and to be expected. Giving children some space to process and live these emotions can help them settle more quickly.

  • Being conscious of your own feelings about a handover can help your children. Children are extraordinarily perceptive, pick up on even subtle non-verbal cues, and can sense for example a parent’s own sadness and anticipation of missing children while they are away. While normal sadness is okay, some parents find it difficult without their children and this can result in a child feeling over-responsible for them. They can express this by showing reluctance to spend time with their other parent, particularly if they know their other parent can cope more easily. Coming up with ways to reassure them and let them know what you will be doing in their absence and that you are okay can really help to set them at ease.

  • It is worth remembering that we expect children to go to school, the dentist and to do other things they might prefer not to do if they were actually given free choice. These things are typically non-negotiable. Regular time with each parent is really important for a child’s development and, unless for very good reason, they should have a sense from both parents that there isn’t a choice in going between parents if they just don’t feel like it.

  • Keeping a reliable routine and structure, both before and after transitions, can help manage children’s expectations and sense of security. The familiarity and expectation can help children experiencing any anxiety or reluctance to transition.

  • Children often enjoy travelling with books or favourite toys or teddies between their homes, which gives them a sense of security and continuity.

  • Consider who is best to wash school uniforms and keep things moving without children being left short of what they need. If children sense a power struggle about things like this, they will only feel negative feelings about themselves and the experience of dividing time between two homes. How can you help one another to help the children even if this means one parent sometimes does more of the heavy lifting? Some parents expect clothes or items only to live in their home, and children have to change before they leave. This could be because the other parent regularly doesn’t return items. Try to work together to think about the impact of such decisions on children, what is best for them and explain to children why certain decisions are being taken.

  • Keep goodbyes brief – if children get too caught up in a goodbye with their parent, it can be unsettling for them.

  • Be prepared to consider adjustments that might be necessary if things really aren’t working. Perhaps children need a little longer to settle before a bedtime in one home, or some one-to-one time with a parent in order to transition more calmly. For example, in new step-families, children may on occasion benefit from some one-to-one time with their parent just to help them settle and feel confident of their position in a new family unit.

  • Consider taking some professional support for you as parents, or for your children, if you feel resistance to transitions is becoming problematic for your child. It is worth being proactive to intervene and assist children at an early point, rather than letting problems grow roots. Sometimes, misunderstandings or misperceptions can be picked up very easily by a professional who is objective and impartial, and nipped in the bud before any longer-term challenges arise.

It is never easy to manage things perfectly, especially initially, and things are forever evolving with children in any event – just as you think things are settling into a good pattern, they evolve again! What children really need from their parents is an approach that mirrors what we’re trying to teach our children – good role modelling and putting their feelings first.

If you wish to discuss this blog further, you can contact Naomi Shelton.

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