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Disclaimer: Any advice or suggestions that I write here CANNOT be considered therapy or professional consultation, due to counseling ethics standards. It is not really practical or possible to do counseling with someone I have never met. What I hope to offer IS my personal experience as a person with ASD, ADHD, and Anxiety Disorder NOS, combined with experience as a parent of special needs children, plus the things I have learned as a professional counselor. Take any advice that fits, leave aside what doesn't fits.
Recently, a reader asked about ways to help her toddler transition after returning from her father's house for a visit. The question was posed as a problem of transition, and certainly that is a big issue with children of any age, especially toddlers. But, there is much more to consider than just transitioning when it comes to the effects of separation and divorce on children. My parents separated when I was young, and later divorced. Let's consider three main problem areas and potential solutions to each one.
Negative emotions and behaviors before and after visitations.
In general, it is expected that a toddler will struggle with visits. If we think about the basic stages of child development, a toddler wants to feel in control of what's going on and dictate when things happen. In addition he wants to make sure that he does things for himself. Asking that a toddler be okay with going to daddy's (or mommy's) house for the weekend on a Friday afternoon obviously represents a threat to that child's sense of control over himself, and his environment, regardless of the child's relationship with that parent. Recall also that toddlers have very low frustration tolerance, limited vocabularies and well-developed lungs. You have the perfect formula for a temper tantrum. Fortunately, there are a few simple things you can do as a parent to help ease the emotional turmoil for your toddler as well as older children.
1.) Talk about the visit early and often, and as positively as possible. The day of the visitation needs to be announced and prepared for well in advance. At 18 months or so, there is less need for discussion, but do talk about any planned events or schedules that you know are likely to happen during the visit. It is essential that you discuss these events and everything else about the visit as positively as possible! If you don't know and aren't able to obtain information about what your child may do on a visit, prepare them to see their Daddy (or Mommy) in as many positive ways as possible. Pay attention to your own emotional state, non-verbal communication, as well as verbal messages to your child every time the visit is mentioned, and right up until the child is buckled up and pulling out of the driveway. Remember, even at 18 months, your child may not understand all of your words, but is an expert at reading your emotional state.
2.) Senses are stronger that words. Although a child may think that he is all-powerful, he is still very dependent on you, at least when it comes to social cues, emotional support and development. There is no more powerful language to a child than what he can see, hear, taste, smell and touch. Send something with your child to visits that invokes the senses and can bring comfort when he misses you. It may be a stuffed animal, blanket, or shirt, sprayed with your perfume or cologne. Consider sending them with their favorite snack to eat. Perhaps you made it together before hand, in preparation for the visit. There are many stuffed animals, books etc, where you can record a message or song to your child, for them to listen to. Make a small portable photo album of your child and you, that he can take with him. When he misses you, he can look at the pictures. If the child is older and it is okay with both parents, a bedtime or morning phone call or skype session might be very helpful. Although, this could cause more harm than good, so be cautious at first and plan ahead.
3. Make it a happy homecoming. Just as it's important to prepare for the visit to ease the transition, it is equally important to plan for the return trip. Any anger or sadness that the child expresses to you and projects onto you after the visit is expected, since this is another transition, and yet another occasion in which he was not consulted beforehand. One simple way to minimize the potential trauma is to plan for something fun and rewarding to do together when the child returns. A favorite game, activity, walk to the park, treat, etc. would all work. Make it something that you can do after each visit, so it becomes routine and predictable (again, empowering the child's sense of control.) For the same reason, a quick return to routine will also ease transition and foster a sense of control and safety for the child. And remember, speak positively about the visit and about the other parent, up to the level of your child's understanding.
Daddy's way or Mommy's way? Which one is right?
We have already covered the importance of conveying positive messages to your child about the non-custodial parent (or co-parent, whatever the case may be). One fact that can't be ignored about this advice is that if mom and dad really got along and communicated with each other positively, they wouldn't have separated or divorced in the first place (generally speaking).
One major point of contention with co-parenting is parental expectations and standards for behavior for the children. Custody cases become "ugly" when they are reduced to he said/she said arguments about who is "right" and who is "wrong" when it comes to parenting. Please remember, it is nearly impossible to replicate the same routines, rules and expectations at both locations, regardless of personal feelings, since a child has a unique relationship with each parent to begin with, and "needs" different things from each as well.
The goal then is not to achieve perfect symmetry at mom's house and dad's house, but for things to happen the same way, at each respective house, every time. Just as it brings you peace of mind to know what the agenda is for the weekend while the child is away, it will greatly help your child to know what to expect at dad's (or mom's) house as well, in addition to supporting the idea that differences between each setting are okay. The hard part is letting go of your resistance to your ex's practices of providing pop-tarts for breakfast, for example, and letting things be, with two major caveats. One, obviously anything that you KNOW is happening or has happened that threatens the safety of your child is not okay. Two, any known attempt by the other parent to use the child as a tool to put a wedge in your relationship with the child, or to pry into your personal life, is NOT okay, and needs to be discussed, privately, calmly, and NEVER in the child's presence. This leads us to one of the most severe effects of separation and/or divorce on a child's life.
It's not your fault!
Decades of studies on divorce have confirmed what most children of divorce already know: Many (but not all) children tend to blame themselves or feel somehow guilty or ashamed about playing a role in the divorce/separation. The results can be regression, acting out, parent splitting, defiance towards you or your ex, and feelings of depression or low self-worth directed toward the self. Some children ally themselves with one parent and grow to despise the non-custodial parent, while others will blame you for "sending away" the non-custodial parent. In some children, these behaviors take the form of efforts to reunite the family (as in The Parent Trap), since, above all, and despite all previous difficulties and unpleasantness within the marriage/relationship, a child wants their parents back together again. All of the above suggestions will help you view their acting out accurately, respond appropriately, and help the child work through these difficult and confusing feelings.
The last thing you want is for your child to feel flawed or otherwise not "good" enough to keep the family together. Fortunately, providing reassurance and loving responses to these feelings should be as natural and powerful as loving that child with all your heart and soul. Your child needs to work out some complicated, conflicted, powerful emotions and thoughts, to arrive at some degree of acceptance and self-assurance that whatever happened with the parents' relationship is not the child's fault. Acceptance often comes with time, and, frequently, children of divorce/separation serve as models of resilience and maturity to those still trying to recover from the loss and separation of a former lover/spouse/best friend. Your example as a parent lays the groundwork for that development and is crucial to the healing that can and will occur for everyone involved in that family system. Love does the rest of the work.