One of the most important things you can do as a parent is to work out a specific visitation schedule and stick to it. Children need predictability. A regular routine and knowing when they will see each of you is comforting.
Divorcing couples who share custody have to manage the logistics of visitation and the disruption caused by children shuttling back and forth between two households. If one or both of you are moving, take the children to your new house or apartment. Show them which room will be theirs. Get them involved in decorating it. Let them choose the items they want to keep at each house.
Once visitation begins, it’s good to set up a nightly phone call check-in. The parent who doesn’t have the child should call and speak to the child for a few minutes. Ask how their day went. Ask about what happened in school. What did they learn? Who did they play with, etc. Tell them a little about your day. Try to imitate the kinds of conversations you would have if you were both in the same house. The parent who has the child for the night should support these calls and encourage the child to speak to the parent who’s not there. This kind of continuity helps minimize the disruption of moving between two households.
Your children need consistent parenting. If they are experiencing adjustment problems at home or in school, you and your ex need to talk about it. Try to establish a consistent approach to these issues. It’s good if the two of you can agree on rules, guidelines, consequences, etc. that are consistent in both your households. This will prevent your children from trying to play you off against each other (“well dad let’s me do….).
Each of you should inform the other of any new developments in your own life or in the life of your children. For example, you need to relay any information provided by school personnel, the outcome of doctor’s visits (if one of you is taking the child to the doctor for any reason) and any changes in your personal life (e.g. a new romantic partner, job lay-off, relative moving into the house, etc.)
Sometimes divorced spouses try to use each other for babysitting. This is a mistake. Each of you needs to establish your own support system and personal network of helpers. Continuing to be dependant upon one another can be a sign of hanging on. Also, this can create confusion for your children. Similarly, spouses should not conduct visitation in one another’s homes unless the child is very small. Again – this is confusing. It suggests that you’re an intact family which isn’t true.
It’s not uncommon for a non-custodial parent to be lackadaisical about visitation. This may occur for a variety of reasons. Sometimes non-custodial parents find it painful to see a child and then have to separate from them. Some non-custodial parents were unreliable when they were married so their behavior after divorce doesn’t change.
The custodial parent tends to deal with this situation in one of several ways. Often they get angry and try to get the ex to be a more responsible parent. Pleading on your child’s behalf or complaining that you’re the one that has to deal with their upset feelings will probably not have much impact. If your ex was an unreliable parent while you were married, it’s unlikely that they’re going to suddenly be different now that you’re divorced.
As unfair as it might be, you are going to have to help your child deal with their disappointment when your ex fails to show up for scheduled visitation. Despite this, it's unwise to be negative or critical about your ex to your children. Instead, ask your child how they feel about the fact that their parent didn’t come to pick them up. It’s likely that they feel rejected, even if they act like it’s no big deal.
It’s not uncommon for children to feel that they’ve caused their parent’s indifference. You need to make it very clear to them that this is not the case. It’s helpful to come up with a narrative about the situation. You can even share your own experience. For instance, you might say, “Some times mommy didn’t show up when we had plans either. That used to really bug me. But I’ve learned that this is the way she is and she probably won’t change. Maybe you and I can plan a special activity that we’ll do if she doesn’t show up.” Of course this won’t completely solve the problem. Your child is still going to be disappointed and you are still going to have to help them with their feelings. Remember, it’s not your job to shelter your children from reality. It’s your job to help them learn how to cope with it.
Johanna Nauraine is a psychotherapist in private practice. She specializes in premarital, marital and divorce therapy, infertility, addictions and career coaching. Read her relationship articles at: http://johannascouch.com