If you think that what you are going through is difficult, put yourself in the kids’ shoes for a minute and it is probably your worse nightmare. When parents end a relationship, kids often wonder if they have done something to contribute to the situation. Kids wonder what will happen to them. Kids feel pulled in both directions and it places them in a loyalty bind with parents. Kids deserve to be happy and feel safe.
If you are ending your relationship, think about the kids before you take any action. Try to have a mature conversation with your co-parent about how the situation will be explained to kids. If possible, try to explain the end of the relationship to the kids in an age-appropriate method. There are great resources available to assist including books, therapeutic intervention and programs at school.
The most important thing is to make sure that the kids know that both of you love them! Although your ex may not be your favorite person, you need to understand that the child is a product of both of you and loves both of you. One simple way to do this is putting a photograph of the co-parent on the children’s nightstand or dresser. That simple act sends the message to the kids that they are free to love the other parent too.
Younger kids tend to have problems with understanding the transition between houses. A client once told me that they created a treat calendar so that the kids would know when they went from house to house. When the kids arrived on a given day, they had a calendar marked and on each day was a treat (it could be as simple as a few candies, a token item, stickers, loose change, etc.). When all the boxes are empty, the kid knows that they are going to see the other parent. This is not something that has to be done forever, but it may help the child to know that they will see the other parent soon. I like the idea of loose change and putting it into a piggy bank.
Another thing that has worked well is having items that the child transitions with to both houses. It could be a stuffed bunny at one house and a dinosaur at the other house. When the exchange happens the parents have the item ready to greet the child and help with separation anxiety. It helps that the child has something familiar to help with missing the other parent.
Besides making sure that kids know that it was not their fault and both parents love them is making sure they know it is okay to love the other parent. This seems simple, but in reality it can be very difficult. A key in this situation is making sure you do not say anything negative about the co-parent, including using a name other than their given name to reference the co-parent. Kids see your cellphone and can read when a parent is referred to as “Satan” or “Stupid.” Believe it or not, I have seen a lot more colorful names and it just is not healthy for the child. Besides you, a lot of parents need to have this conversation with friends, family members and significant others.
None of these are foolproof methods, but they may help to reduce the stress that the child goes through during the transition. Again, make sure the child knows that both parents love them and they are free to love the other parent.