Health & Medicine

Balancing separate households

About half of all marriages end in divorce. That means thousands of kids under the age of 18 travel between parents living in separate households. While I’m completely in favor of moms and dads having access to their children on an equitable basis, such arrangements present a host of challenges that require awareness and flexibility to make them work.

Children’s lives are inherently disrupted by dual household living. Their toys, homework and friends are scattered between different addresses. They often report feeling powerless as they’re shipped from one location to the next, especially when parents’ preferences trump their child’s needs or wants.

Parents can have different styles. One may be fastidious while another lets dishes pile high in the sink. A father might enforce daily chores while the mother does everything for her youngsters.

Sometimes divorced moms and dads intentionally defy their exes’ wishes. They want to shed any sense of control exerted on them by the other parent, even though their actions compromise the children’s well-being or development.

Boys and girls may pick up behaviors from one parent that are unacceptable to the other. Swear words, poor manners, disagreeable attitudes and contrary opinions may be passed like a virus between the two houses.

One parent might secretly seethe at the arrival of such unwelcome guests. Still, there’s little anyone can do to alter the process.

When divorced parents begin dating they introduce new adults and children into the child-rearing equation. These current flings usually have little interest in pre-existing youngsters and frequently interfere with the custodial parents’ relationship with their own kids.

Divorced parents can harbor anger about the breakup and express their hostility to the kids. They might bad mouth Mom’s new boyfriend or blame Dad for a child’s regressive behavior. They may be bitter toward the grandparents who called the police during a heated argument and had them arrested. Such negativity is especially detrimental to children’s psyches; they desperately want to love both of their parents yet do their best to ensure that both are pleased.

Kids are deeply affected by ongoing conflict. In fact, unchecked arguing inflicts more pain than the actual divorce. Children come to dread their weekly transitions when Mom and Dad exchange hateful barbs. They can’t wait until they’re old enough to grow up and move out on their own.

In spite of these concerns, shared custody is still the best way for divorced parents to be involved in their youngsters’ upbringing. When handled in a sensitive manner, it allows both adults and children to maintain a strong and nurturing relationship.

Tips for smooth transitioning

Want to make joint custody work for all involved?

Follow these suggestions:

Be an ally with your ex. Even though you’re now divorced, you’re still raising children together. Present a united front to the kids to ensure their physical and emotional needs are met.

Adapt custody to your children’s ages and stages. Children younger than 5 should live primarily with one parent and have short, frequent visits with the other. Grade-school age kids may be able to live for a week at each parent’s home. Older children might want to alter living arrangements to accommodate sports or other activities. Flexibility is the key.

Never speak poorly about the other parent. Your children deserve to have a loving relationship with both their mom and dad. Regardless of what was said or done in the past, keep your opinions to yourself.

Be cordial whenever you’re with your ex. The kids appreciate the pleasant atmosphere. You’ll decrease your personal angst.

Accept new partners. You have no control over who your ex dates or marries. And this new person plays a vital role in your children’s existence. Put a smile on your face and use your best manners.

Set clear boundaries in your household. Establish firm rules for behavior, chores and language. Reinforce them as often as necessary, especially after kids have been with your ex. You only have your children part-time so it’s imperative that you instill good values.

Accept your situation. You might not like sharing custody. Still, it’s a fact of your divorced life. Acknowledge your status quo and live within its confines. Put energies where they’re most needed — raising your children.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit lindalewisgriffith.com

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