The Power of Routine
What is the best way to help children make a healthy transition from living in one home to living in two homes? Simple: Keep the routine.
When parents separate, it is important for children to stay in a daily routine with as few changes as possible so children have the energy for the big and sometimes scary change when parents forget how to be friends.
Questions for co-parents to ask themselves:
- Can we keep our children in the same school?
- Can we continue to use the same childcare, daycare, or after school care?
- Can we maintain the same enrichment activities like sports, cheer, gymnastics, dance, martial arts, music lessons, etc?
- Can we work together to maintain the usual schedules with extended family members for both mom and dad?
- Can we keep the children in the same and/or close by neighborhood?
Imagine that you are a child whose parents are separating. One day you feel secure and the next day you're uncertain about everything and everyone. You are full of emotions: fear, guilt, hurt, anxiety, anger, powerlessness. Perhaps you feel insecure and easily frightened. The emotional load thrust upon the child is why family breakup has been identified as one of the most common Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
Chronic stress and ongoing trauma become a threat to the child’s well-being at every level. Parents who understand the risks of ACEs, and take steps to minimize trauma and chronic stress are able to help children develop and rely on their own resilience. Of course, the Couple relationship will change significantly as each partner learns the skills and protective factors for a healthy uncoupling, and begin the transition to their respective Parenting and Co-parenting Roles. Children learn resilience from resilient parents! Modeling resilience for parents becomes possible when you are able to find helpful and accurate information, a support system that cares and tells you the truth, and engage in mature and thoughtful decision making. Reach out for help!
If it’s not possible to keep a child in the same school, you and your co-parent can consider the next best possible alternative: wait for a natural change point like the beginning of the school year, or the beginning of a new semester. If you find that financial challenges prohibit extracurricular activities for the child, talk to the provider first, and explain your situation. Most people will understand and work with you to support the child in making a more ordinary transition, such as the end of the season or the time for the next enrollment session.
If you are completely in control of a major change, then plan it carefully. One of the most difficult situations for a child is when Mom or Dad feels betrayed and uses the child as a confidante; or when either Mom or Dad immediately adds a new romantic partner to the life of the child. All too often this is just too much change all at once and can feel like a parent is actually being replaced. This adds emotional and cognitive processing challenges for the child that is often too stressful. Children need time and gradual changes in the areas where parents are in control of the changes! Too much change handled poorly, can cause children to regress or develop anxiety or depression. Give each child time, lots of love, and patience so they have the time and space needed to make good adjustments to the new family structures.
So, what is the bottom line? Keep the routine the same when possible. If something has to change, find a point in time as far in the future as possible and then carefully prepare for that.
This need for routine and consistency cannot be overemphasized. Most children have the capacity for resilience as long as parents find their own resilience. The greatest risk to a child when parents separate is the loss of a parent; the greatest benefit to a child when parents separate is the gift of two loving parents, two loving homes, and a whole family circle of people who love the child.
A wonderful way to allow your child some time, room, and space to make healthy transitions? Let your child spend more time with other warm and caring adults who are unburdened by the stress and challenges of the family break up while you build your resilience. Allow your child to simply be loved, play, explore, be spontaneous, and ordinary! This can be a gift for you, for your child, and for the larger circle of friends and family.