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Co-Parenting Success: Handling Custody Exchanges For Kids Well-Being

Updated: Apr 16

Things changed and your child is now going back and forth between two houses. Maybe they’ve been doing it for a few years or maybe it just started, but you wonder how can you support them through it. Changing homes and routines is hard on a child. You might even notice an uptick in behaviors when they come home, worsened school behaviors, letters home from the teachers, suspensions, or more.

You want custody exchanges to go smoothly where your kid can readjust to your home without any major incidents and can attend school with good behavior, but how do you do it?

1: Have A Good Neutral Place For Custody Exchanges

For many parents, having a good neutral place for custody exchanges can be crucial for them and their child. This neutral place could be a school playground, a courthouse, or outside the local precinct. Having custody exchanges at each parent’s home can lead to extra chaos or broken boundaries, or custody exchanges taking longer. By having it at a neutral location, the child is already in the car with their stuff and ready to go. 

Parents should have clear pick-up and drop-off times. There should be clear guidelines for what can be communicated in custody exchanges and keeping it positive as the child is around and listening to what parents are saying.

2: Have Good Routines For The Child In Custody Exchanges

Imagine if you had to go back and forth between workplaces every week and different things were expected of you, you would likely be confused and struggle to meet those expectations. You may begin to get frustrated or respond negatively simply because you are doing your best with two different sets of expectations and schedules between places. Your child may feel the same going back and forth between two different environments and trying to remember what is expected of them in both environments. 

As parents, you both must be on the same page with consistent routines. This will help your child feel more in control of their environment, feel safer and comfortable, manage their feelings better, and adapt to new challenges or stressors. 

If you are struggling to work those out, co-parenting therapy could be good for you. The more you both have the same routine that the child goes from one home to the next, the easier the child will have to acclimate to custody exchanges. Routines should include set bedtimes and wake-up times, homework time, and levels of independence with the child, such as if the child can brush their teeth or their hair, or what chores they are to do at both households. This will ensure the child has the same allowance of freedom, responsibility, and rules at each household so that they aren’t confused going back and forth between houses about what is expected of them. 

It is also important to ensure the child’s belongings such as clothing, stuffed animals, or school items are consistently exchanged between homes so the child is set up for success for the upcoming week. If one parent is unwilling to work with the other on having good routines for the child, then make sure that as the parent who can have routines you do so. Have a visual schedule if needed, remind the child of the schedule, and keep it as consistent as possible. Humans are creatures of habits and kids especially love the consistency of a schedule.

3: Have Good Discipline To Help Children In Custody Situations

Having good discipline in both homes is crucial to navigating a custody situation and maintaining your child’s mental health. Children are perceptive and able to use differences in parenting styles and discipline to their advantage, and will quickly learn what they can get away with in each household. Children do not thrive being in power and this can cause harm to them long-term. 

Both parents should strive to have the same rules and consequences at both homes so the child knows what to predict. If one parent is not able to have the same discipline, then work at your home to keep it very consistent where the child knows what to expect at your house with the rules and the consequences if they break those rules. These rules could be about homework, bedtime, aggression toward siblings or others, getting in trouble at school, or more. It may be helpful to remind them of these rules during transitions back to your house. 

4: Have A Good Transition-Back Ritual For Smooth Custody Exchanges

Having a good ritual for kids to transition back from the other home can be crucial to helping maintain your child’s mental health during custody exchanges. This can start when the child gets in the car playing calming music or a calming television show, drinking some water or sucking on a lollipop or something calming, having a snack, and talking about their time with the other parent if they want to talk about it.

Once they get home, they may have different needs to help them reacclimate. Some may need outdoor time to get out extra energy by bouncing on a trampoline, tossing a ball back and forth, or just free play. Some children find it helpful to have them take a bath or shower. Some families have family meetings with a secret handshake when they re-enter the home. For many kids, getting in good reconnection time with adults is important. It can also be helpful to review the rules and consequences or the schedule of the night before the child enters the house.

5: Talk About How Common Custody Exchanges Are

Kids want to know they aren’t the only ones going through something. They want to see others in their situation and know they aren’t wrong or bad for their situation or for it being different than the typical situation depicted on television of a mom and dad together. A great way to do that is to show them television shows, movies, and books about divorce, co-parenting, and custody exchanges. 

Two Great Kids Books On Custody:

Great Books For Co-Parenting Positively With Custody Exchanges:

Custody exchanges are tough on everyone involved, but by following these steps you can hopefully keep the stress of your child so they can transition back and forth between each home with ease. If you are curious if it is time to get help with your family conflict, click here.

If you are looking for help with co-parenting, custody exchanges, or family therapy, Mary Willoughby (Romm) Prentiss is a licensed professional counselor in the state of Virginia who provides online therapy for Willow Tree Healing Center. She enjoys transforming the lives of women, college students, kids, tweens/teens, and families through providing communication strategies, coping skills that work, allowing a safe space to be heard, and actively working towards helping you with your challenges. She is certified in Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (ages 2-7) and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, counsels substance abuse in teens and adults, and practices Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy.

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