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What Is Your Children's Experience of Two Homes After a Divorce?

How to relieve your kids of the burden of the divorce.

Key points

  • The experience of children going back and forth between two homes after a divorce can vary significantly.
  • The children's age and social-emotional development is a primary consideration in establishing a schedule.
  • Parents must foster open communication, minimize conflict, and create a supportive and consistent environment.

I have been thinking about the effect on children moving between two homes after their parents' divorce. When I divorced in the mid-1990s, my ex and I nested (“birdnested”) for 15 months so that our kids stayed put. In my work with divorcing parents, I always discussed nesting for transitional or long-term co-parenting and coached many families who nested successfully for months or years. I promoted the advantages to the kids as well as the parents, and wrote The Parent’s Guide to Birdnesting, which was published in 2020.

But looking at this from the children’s point of view tips the topic on its head. As one adult child later told me about his nesting experience, “Our parents carried the burden of the divorce; we kids didn’t have to do that.”

I have observed a 6-year-old boy who has been moving between two homes since his parents separated when he was a year old. He has no memory of his family living together. For some time, these transitions were his “normal.” But, as he grew, he saw that his kindergarten friends were, for the most part, living with both parents, and he began to ask questions. “Why don’t Mom and Dad live together? Why can’t I stay with Dad today? I want to see my kitty at Mom’s house.”

I began to ask myself questions, too. He is an only child, a boy. I wonder how his experience would be different if he had a sibling? If he were a girl? If his parents had divorced earlier? If they had nested? And, importantly, how can therapists and parents support these children?

Therapists who work with families of divorce know that the experience of children going back and forth between two homes after their parents' divorce can vary significantly. Factors such as the age of the child(ren), the relationship between the parents, the distance between the two homes, and the overall level of conflict or cooperation between the parents all will affect the child’s experience.

Here are my ideal scenarios after a divorce if the family chooses not to nest:

  1. The age of the children and their social-emotional development is a primary consideration in establishing a schedule. The goal is “frequent and continuing contact” with each parent. Younger children (under 4) need more frequent turnovers. Alternating every day for infants, or perhaps every two days, ensures that the attachment to each parent is maintained, and even strengthened. As toddlers, they may tolerate longer times, such as a 2/2/3 schedule. I think that a 2/2/5 schedule can be successful for children at age 10, and perhaps a week-on-week-off schedule can work for them in high school (with a mid-week dinner with the off-duty parent). All this assumes that the children are well-adjusted to the divorce, but if there are special needs or other considerations, the schedule will have to be tailored to their needs.
  2. The schedule and other agreements should be documented in a well-thought-through parenting plan.
  3. Ideally, parents can prioritize their children above the parents’ conflict and communication difficulties. Research tells us that parental conflict is the single most damaging factor for children in divorce. Co-parenting counseling may be essential in supporting your children’s welfare and mental health.
  4. The distance between the two homes should be more than two miles for privacy, but less than seven miles so that the children don’t spend hours in the car as they move from Mom’s house to Dad’s house. Also, kids will inevitably need or forget something at the “other” parent’s home. The farther away that is, the more inconvenient (and annoying) it will be.
  5. Parents who share information about the children and cooperate in their co-parenting are giving their children the gift of stability, safety, and security.

Of course, my ideals are a stretch for many parents. Even efforts toward these ideals will benefit your children. But without your effort toward those ideals, these are some common experiences that your children may have:

  1. Emotional adjustment: Children have a wide range of reactions to their parents’ divorce. Initially, children may feel confused, sad, or even angry about the divorce and the new living arrangements. They may struggle to adjust to the idea of living in two different households. They may compartmentalize if there is chronic conflict between the parents, living in two separate worlds, with different rules and expectations. Two homes force your kids to adapt to changes on many levels. Dinner at 5:00 at one home but at 6:30 at the other can be discombobulating to a child’s sense of order in the universe!
  2. Logistical challenges: Parents expect their children to manage their belongings, school supplies, and personal items between two homes and often get upset when homework or soccer shoes are forgotten at the “other” house. This can be challenging and frustrating to children and may lead to acting out behaviors or forgetfulness.
  3. Sense of belonging: Children may feel like they don't have a permanent home or that they don't fully belong in either household. It is harder to maintain neighborhood friendships, and carpools can get complex. This can affect your kids’ sense of security and stability.
  4. Adapting to different rules and routines: Each household may have its own set of rules, routines, and expectations. Children may need to adapt to different parenting styles, schedules, and living environments, which can be confusing or stressful. Chores that are expected of them at Mom’s house might not be consistent at Dad’s. Children may feel deeply off-balance and confused and rarely are able to express this.
  5. Maintaining relationships with parents: One child told me he misses his mom when he’s with his dad and misses his dad when he’s with his mom. “I’m never not missing one of them. It’s really hard.” Children may worry about maintaining relationships with both parents, as well as with siblings, extended family members, and friends who may be impacted by the divorce. When other adults take sides in the divorce, the children can struggle with loyalty conflicts. Jaime tells me, “I have to remember not to talk to Mom about her friends who took Dad’s side in the divorce.”
  6. Communication challenges: Coordinating schedules, activities, and important information between parents may be challenging, especially if there is ongoing conflict or poor communication between the parents. A child told me his parents didn’t remember who was to pick him up at school, so neither did. He felt invisible, unimportant, unloved, neglected, and even abandoned.
  7. Feeling torn or loyalty conflicts: Children may feel torn between their parents or may worry about upsetting one parent by showing affection or loyalty to the other. If they are worried about how a parent is feeling, they can adopt a parentified role, where they feel they have to take care of the parent. This is an unhealthy and unfair role for kids.
  8. Long-term adjustment: Over time, many children can adapt to their new living arrangements and develop coping strategies to navigate the challenges of living in two homes. Support from both parents, as well as access to counseling or therapy if needed, can help children adjust more effectively.

Parents need to prioritize their children's well-being during and after divorce by fostering open communication, minimizing conflict, and creating a supportive and consistent environment for their children, both in their own home and in the other parent's home. How can you carry the burden of the divorce so that your children don’t have to? Let this be your guide to creating a healthy postdivorce adjustment for your children.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2024

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