What is the basic rule of thumb for helping children make a successful transition from living in a home with 2 parents, to living in a 2 separate homes with a parent in each?
First and foremost, maintain your routines. Keep everything as close to the same as possible. Unless it is absolutely necessary due to survival, leave routines alone.
What does this mean?
- Keep your child in the same school.
- Use the same childcare, daycare, or after school care.
- Keep the children in the same neighborhood.
- Maintain enrichment activities like sports, cheer, gymnastics, dance, martial arts, music lessons, etc.
- Maintain the usual schedules with extended family members for both mom and dad.
Think about your child's life from their perspective. Parental separation is like an earthquake emotionally, mentally, and psychologically. It feels like the entire world is completely different and it feels unsafe and the child feels insecure. It is why family breakup is one of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE.)
The more you the parent can do to make the day-to-day life of the child as similar as possible, the more likely it is that your child will do well with the big changes.
Research has shown that children adjust better to the big transition of family breakup, when at least one adult in their life is paying attention to the smaller daily and weekly transitions.
If you do have to change your child's school, wait for a natural change point like the beginning of the school year, or the beginning of a new semester. If you have to drop activities because of financial challenges, 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, like 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 either Mom or Dad immediately add a new adult to the life of the child who is a new romantic partner for the parent. This adds emotional and cognitive processing challenges for the child that usually requires too much stress. Some children may regress or develop anxiety or depression.
The bottom line? If it isn't a matter of life and death, leave it the same. 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 are resilient and we have been looking at a myriad of protective factors and protective actions parents can take to safeguard the child and to enhance and even teach those protective factors.
If you are going to change anything, increase the amount of time your child is able to spend with other adults who are unburdened by the stress and challenges of the family break up. Allow your child to simply be loved, play, explore, and be ordinary. This is the greatest gift and the greatest protective factor for making a successful transition.