Living arrangements after separation or divorce

Your child is likely to adjust better to living arrangement after separation or divorce if he feels like he’s had some input. So it’s a good idea to reassure your child that you’ll consider the living arrangements that he wants. You can even involve him in the discussions if you think he’s old enough.

Your child might worry that she has to make a choice that means pleasing one of you and hurting the other. It’s OK to reassure her and let her know that it’s not up to her 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 or can get to after-school activities.

Here are some tips to help you set up living arrangements that work well for your child, and support your child as he adjusts.

Let your child know who’ll take her to school, where she’ll sleep and how often she’ll see each of you.

Keep basic clothing and personal items like underwear, toiletries, pyjamas and runners in each home. This way your child doesn’t have to remember to move everything between the two 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 his bag or write a list of what he needs to take and stick it on the wall. Older children might need help planning what school books and homework to take.

A shared online calendar or app can be a great way to stay organised and communicate with your former partner about what’s coming up.

Two homes, two routines
Children can cope well 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’. Eventually your child will get used to the differences.

A ‘place for me’
Children need a place they can call their own and a space to store their things in both homes. Think outside the box a little. Find a way to give your child some ‘me space’, even if she doesn’t have her own bedroom. This space could be a cupboard for her toys, a beanbag, or a wall where she can put up her favourite pictures.

If your child is confused or anxious about moving between two homes, listen to what’s bothering him. You might need to talk to your former partner about the arrangements if they need changing to suit your child’s needs. If talking to your former partner 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, she’ll have extra school, social, sport and even part-time work commitments. This might make it harder for her to move from one house to another. You might need to adjust your arrangements to your child’s changing needs.

Tips for children moving between two homes

When your child moves between homes, he might feel unsettled and grumpy when he first arrives. The good news is that you can plan ahead for this unsettled period:

  • Have a homecoming ritual. It could be a long bath with your child’s favourite music playing, eating a snack together, ringing a friend or looking at future events on the calendar. This can help ease the transition.
  • Give your child a chance to unwind. This will help her settle in. Take your cues from your child about whether she’d prefer a quiet activity like reading a book, or something physical like outside play.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. But avoid asking too many questions about your child’s time with his other parent. Your child might prefer to talk after he has settled in.
  • Encourage your child to send messages to her other parent when she’s with you and vice versa.
  • If possible, avoid making the transition when your child is tired or hungry.
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 three years and co-parenting a son who spends time with his father two days a week

When your child doesn’t want to go between homes

Some children have trouble switching houses. Your child might decide that he doesn’t want to go to your former partner’s, 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, reassure her and let her know that her time with her other parent is important. Tell your child that you’ll be there when she gets home or will pick her up by a certain time. Then it’s a good idea to try distracting her with other topics.

When your child is settled back with you and feeling calm, gently explore why he was upset and provide lots of reassurance.

If possible, try to work out a solution with your former partner. You might need to look at your arrangements again, to make sure your child’s needs are being met. For example, you might need to change the time of day when the changeover is happening, the activities leading up to changeover, or where you do the changeover.

If your child doesn’t feel safe or secure, you’ll need to seek professional advice.

My kids used to ring crying from their mum’s place and it was so hard, but I knew they were really OK there. I tried to stay optimistic and encouraged them to settle in. It was appreciated much later down the track.
– Barry, 45, divorced for two years and co-parenting three children four days a fortnight