Resilient and yet vulnerable, I imagine the Bifurcated Child as a cross between a turtle with its home on its back and a bird migrating from nest to nest. It's a situation rife with possibilities for the transitional stress that occurs when these kids do their trek, back and forth, complete with dips, spins and hurdles met and overcome in the custody shuffles between your homes.
Here are four tips for easing transitional stress, which can be especially challenging during the already-stressful holiday season:
1. Lighten Your Kids' Loads: The less actual baggage they carry, the less they carry emotionally too, which means you're doing more schlepping. As they mature, children can increasingly help, but when they're young a little luggage goes a long way. Parents are the executive partners; youngsters are the junior partners in this stage of life. So plan ahead. Keep your share of the child's supplies close at hand -- on your person, in your car, and home. Remember, children's property helps ease transitions because it is their own. Some items are not allowed at school and other activities, so respect that and move with the children wherever they are.
If one of the adults has a special request regarding return or use of a particular item, particularly the valuable ones like cell phones and laptops or stuffed animals and special blankies, that request should be made directly to the other parent, outside of the childrens' presence. The goal is to make sure that these items are fairly distributed and available for use in a relaxed and natural way so it does not become a cause of tension between households.
2. Pick Up At The Start Time: Pick up your children at the beginning of your co-parenting timeshare when it's your period of responsibility for their care and supervision. Also, share transportation of the child as equally as possible. Minimize bouncing directly from home to home. Create a step in between by picking up your child after another transition such as the end of the regular school day, or going to religious school or a sports activity on a weekend. This extra step is to keep the child on track with what would be normal if you lived together.
3. Easy Does It With Goodbyes And Hellos: It's hard to say goodbye. Whenever possible, minimize the number of relatives present. Say proper goodbyes for the last time about 15 minutes prior to the other parent's pick up. Upon returns, cool it with questions or catching the child up on what they missed in their absence. As Dr. Berman reminds me, most questions are hidden commands. Let children lead the way and find their own rhythm of settling in. Give the other parent the benefit of the doubt that, barring specific signs of trouble from the child, all went well. You may be curious, but that is probably all you need to know. Children usually will open up and talk about their experience once they've settled back in with you.
When tensions are running high, "blind transitions" -- meaning parents do not actually see each other -- may minimize any stress the children might feel over the possibility of a fight, or difficult farewells, at the transfer. When a "blind transition" is not possible, the parents can exchange the children at a neutral public place, such as the children's section of a book store or at a cafe. Unless you need extra protection, try to stay away from exchanges at the police department.
If you and your co-parent aren't getting along and the pick up or drop off needs to be at either parent's residence, the traveling parent should apply a light touch and display a more formal etiquette. The picking up parent stops at the curb and the at-home parent will wait for the children at the door. The children travel from the car to the house within sight of both parents, without the parents having direct contact.
4. Children Are Not Messengers: Being cooperative and friendly can be a slippery slope until the emotional divorce is complete, but nothing short of physical violence is worse than the verbal abuse of using children as messengers. Co-parents need to develop a method of communication concerning the children that they mutually agree to use. This can be accomplished in a number of ways, such as a computer program like Our Family Wizard that provides an infrastructure for written communication, an in-person meeting, telephone, text, e-mail or other methods. Both parents must agree that the children shall not be used as messengers.
If you keep these four suggestions in mind, you will be on your way to accomplishing the goal of having your Bifurcated Child move to and fro as smoothly as possible, and for the wobble of transitional stress to be manageable for everyone.