How to help your kids ease into a new routine when there are now two households.
Getting a new school year off to a good start, with both parents on the same page, can influence children’s attitude, confidence, and performance both socially and academically. The transition from summer to back-to-school can be difficult. It can be even more trying when it’s the first year back to school after a divorce. My kids are going back to school in a week with the added twist of now living at two different houses. Although my ex and I separated in January, we did not have a regular visitation schedule. We did alternate weekends and were flexible with weeknights on an intermittent basis, which in hindsight may have been hard for the children. Really, everything was hard for them, it was a matter of making things as easy as possible, letting them feel their feelings, talk about them, and reassuring them that it was going to get easier. And it has.
Mostly, they slept at my house during the week, but still went to baseball with their dad, Scouts with their dad, the occasional mid-week movie with him, or even a sleep-over here and there, the goal being that not too much time would pass between visits. But it was not a routine, and I know from childhood experience that routine is comforting and necessary. And now, we will have one. I also know, it will be different from anything they’ve ever done. And it will be an adjustment.
During the summer, it was easier, no early wake ups, no homework, no after school activities. The custody agreement was designed with their best interests in mind, and they spend a good deal of time with their dad, which is great. It’s good for him, for them, and for me. They had questions about the logistics and I let them fire away. I took out a calendar and marked the days so they’d see how it would work, I encouraged them to talk with their father. I let them know it might feel strange at first and that we would take it slow, that they could talk to either of us, or their therapist if it felt uncomfortable, difficult, or stressful. It would be a transition but we live five minutes away from each other. Forget something at one house and need it for the next day, we’ll go pick it up. Have a really busy week and need to stay at one house because you’re working on a project and all your stuff is there, no problem. Out sick one day and just need to be where you woke up, all day, and the next, that’s fine.
My boys are very different when it comes to being flexible, and comfortable with change. My older son prefers routine and my younger son is less structured. As I expected, my older son was more anxious about the agreement. But, because my ex and I have listened to their needs, and been flexible as to visitation, such as the random evening when the boys had half days last school year and my one son would say “I want to go to dinner with dad,” or “I want to do a night swim at dad’s.” And if homework was done, “OK, text him and ask, it’s OK with me.” I want them to spend as much time with their dad as they can. I see this working out for everyone. They want to see their dad, he wants to be in their lives, and I don’t want to be a 24/7 single mom. Win, win, win.
Even children who like school, as mine do, get overwhelmed by transition. And children who have so much change at home can simply shut down, as mine did. Last year, when my husband and I split up, I let my sons’ teachers and administrators know. They were having a tough time emotionally and I wanted my “village” on alert. We are fortunate, by design as we chose this neighborhood for the schools, to have remarkable teachers, school counselors, and administrators and were supported beyond belief. My youngest, who has ADHD, became physically unable to take his pills. He’d choke on them. We had to find another solution, which we did. He was unable to go to school at first for days on end. He was completely non-functional. And his absences were forgiven, although he had a significant amount of make-up work. The school helped with a plan. He’d come in early for homework club, stay late, have tutors to help, and he did that until he got caught up. But at first, he stayed home. My other son would miss assignments. His teachers and I were in daily email contact and they helped make sure he stayed on track. His ADD, normally well managed, simply could not process the stress in his personal life and handle the rigors of seventh grade. He needed help. And he got it. And by the end of the year, he was fine.
My boys and I moved over the summer. We love our little house. They are both doing well. We have settled in. This is yet another transition, starting school. They’ve been traveling, staying up late, sleeping in; it’s going to be a rough first few weeks. And add to that a schedule where some days they come home to my house, and others their dad’s. I know they are already anxious. One’s way of dealing with it has been to ask me over and over, “OK, so tell me again, which days am I going to Dad’s?” And I tell him. I show him on the calendar. I will put a calendar on the fridge with the days color-coded and remind him in the morning, and his father will too. The other’s anxiety is simply “It’s too confusing, I can’t do it.” And I let him feel that. “I know it feels really overwhelming. It will be a little strange at first, I’ll remind you, and we’re going to try it.” I may get him different colored plastic bracelets to wear for mom days and dad days, or something. I’ll talk with him this week about it. He’s very routine oriented, so once things become routine, then he’s fine. It’s the anticipatory anxiety that gets him. I get it, I’m the same way. So, I can let him feel it, and not minimize it. There’s nothing more demoralizing than having your anxieties dismissed. They’re real.
I believe my boys will do well because we have set up the best solution for an unfortunate situation. What would be worse would be living under the same roof still, unhappy, tense, and fighting. So, happy mom in her house, happy dad in his, and happy kids with two houses not five minutes apart. That’s a transition we can work with. Just feel the feelings, talk about them, and know they will come up at times of transition and let them out, and then let them go, knowing they’ll come back again.
The best way to make your kids feel safe is to listen. Listen and let them feel. “There’s no reason to be worried,” will shut your child down. Tell them, “I can see you’re really worried. What are you worried about?” and you’ve opened lines of communication forever.