Living arrangements for children and teenagers after separation or divorce
Your child is likely to adjust better to living arrangements after separation or divorce if they feel like they’ve had some input. So it’s a good idea to reassure your child that you’ll consider the living arrangements that they want. You can even involve your child in the discussions if they’re old enough and you and your child’s other parent can talk calmly.
Your child might worry about making a choice that means pleasing one of you and hurting the other. It’s OK to reassure them and let them know that it’s not up to them to make the major decisions.
It’s important for your child to know that living arrangements aren’t about who loves your child the most. Rather, you need to base them on practical issues like who is at home most, lives closest to school, can get to after-school activities and so on.
Tips for new living arrangements after separation or divorce
Here are tips to help you set up living arrangements that work well for your child, now and as they adjust.
- Let your child know who’ll take them to school, where they’ll sleep and how often they’ll see each of you.
- Keep essential clothing and personal items like nappies, underwear, toiletries, pyjamas and runners at both homes. This way your child doesn’t have to remember to move everything between your 2 homes.
- If your child has a special blanket or toy, make sure your child takes it when going back and forth. This will help your child feel more secure.
- To make things easier at packing time, help your child pack their bag or write a list of what they need to take. Older children might need help planning the school books and homework they need.
- Consider using a shared online calendar or co-parenting app to stay organised and communicate with your child’s other parent about what’s coming up.
Different routines in different homes
Children aged 2-5 years do better when routines are similar across both homes. For example, it’s best for them to have meals and go to bed at the same time in both homes.
As children get older, they can cope better with different routines in different houses, as long as the rules are clear and you keep things as predictable as possible. You might need to say something like, ‘When you’re here, we’ll do it this way’.
A ‘place for me’
Children need a place of their own and a space to store things in both homes. Try thinking creatively about how to give your child some ‘me space’, even if they don’t have their own bedroom. This space could be a cupboard or a drawer for their toys, a beanbag, or a wall where they can put up their favourite pictures.
If your child is confused or anxious about moving between 2 homes, listen to what’s bothering them. If the arrangements need to change to suit your child, it’s good to talk to your child’s other parent if you can. If this isn’t possible, a counsellor or other professional might be able to help.
A consistent and predictable routine helps children feel secure, confident and happy. But as your child gets older, they’ll have extra school, social, sport and even part-time work commitments. This might make it harder for them to move from one house to another. You might need to adjust your arrangements to your child’s changing needs.
Tips for children and teenagers moving between homes
When your child moves between your homes, they might feel unsettled and grumpy when they first arrive. Here are things you can do to help your child settle in and reconnect with you when they’re ready:
- Have a homecoming ritual. It could be a long bath with favourite music playing, eating a snack together, or looking at what’s on the calendar. For younger children it might be cuddles on the couch or a story straight after the changeover.
- Give your child a chance to unwind. Take your cues from your child about whether they’d prefer a quiet activity like reading a book or something physical like outside play.
- Keep the lines of communication open. But try not to ask your child too many questions about what’s happening at the other home. If you let your child settle in, they’re more likely to share things with you when they’re ready.
- Encourage your child to keep in touch with their other parent when they’re with you – for example, with phone or video calls or text messages.
It was so tempting to ask my 12-year-old what was going on at the other house. But I bit my tongue because I didn’t want him to feel that awful pressure of being interrogated and having to come up with an answer that wouldn’t upset Mum. I’m proud that I did that.
– Gill, 49, separated for 3 years and co-parenting a son who spends time with his father 2 days a week
When children and teenagers don’t want to go between homes
Some children have trouble moving between 2 homes.
Your child might decide that they don’t want to go to their other home or come home to you. Try not to take this too personally. This feeling might go away once your child gets into the routine. For some – especially very young children – separation can be quite difficult.
If your child wants to stay with you or is asking to come home to you, reassure them and let them know that their time with their other parent is important. Tell your child that you’ll still be here when they get back or you’ll pick them up by a certain time. Then it’s a good idea to try distracting them with other things.
When your child is settled back with you and feeling calm, gently talk with them about why they were upset.
If possible, try to work out a solution with your child’s other parent. You might need to look at when, where or how the changeover is happening to make sure your child’s needs are being met. For example, toddlers might cope better if the changeover happens at child care, with one parent dropping them off and the other parent picking them up.
When children and teenagers are struggling with different homes: signs and support
Your child might not be able to tell you with words that they’re struggling with the transition between different homes. But changes in your child’s behaviour, health, mood or personality might tell you they’re not coping. For example, your child might:
- get angry, upset or tearful more than usual
- refuse to cooperate with family routines
- have problems at school or with schoolwork
- have sleep problems or eating problems like binge eating or loss of appetite
- lose interest in activities they usually enjoy
- have problems with friends or peers.
If possible, talk to your child’s other parent about your concerns. You might be able to work together to help support your child.
If your child needs to talk to someone other than you, they could call a confidential telephone counselling service for young people like Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.
If you think your child needs more support, your GP can help you find other professionals, like local psychologists or relationship counsellors. Or you can talk to government-funded relationship counsellors at organisations like headspace, Relationships Australia, Relationship Matters and Family Relationships Online.