One school year – while I was working as a school health counselor and updating student health files – I was informed that there were two students being sent to the nurse’s office.
The notes said that the students had headaches, stomach aches and were feeling tired. I checked their vital signs and did some physical assessments. I shared my findings with them; no fever, no pain, no vomiting; their physical assessment was fine. I told them that since I didn’t find anything wrong, I couldn’t send them home.
Instantly, David and Margaret replied that they didn’t want to go home.
I had known them both since they were in the first grade. They were very kind and well-mannered kids. To see them emotionally distraught was alarming. So we sat down and started to talk things out – they soon warmed up to me and had a productive conversation about what was happening.
Splitting time between homes can be hard
David was the first to open up, and Margaret did, too, after a while. They said their parents had divorced during the summer and had joint custody. The kids now alternated time with each parent, spending three days with Dad and four days with Mom. Both said that, while they were adjusting to the schedule, they still found it very difficult and confusing to adhere to, particularly now that school has started.
And on that day, because they’d been in a rush, they’d forgotten their gym clothes and some of their books and homework at their father’s house. They felt that if they told their mother about it, she would get upset and if they told Dad to bring it to school, he would get mad, and they did not like to see their parents fight over these matters.
I listened closely to what they were saying and watched their body language.
Writing things down gets everyone on the same page
Both children were able to vent their feelings of hurt, confusion and anxiety. They expressed their love for their parents by trying to be good children, but the schedule of joint custody wasn’t working well for them.
“In time, we’ll get used to it,” David said.
Margaret chimed in, saying, “I think if we had a big reminder calendar to prompt us of what is going on every day, and where we will be, it would be best. And the calendar should be in both Mom’s and Dad’s house. Don’t you think so, Mrs. Halloran?”
“Great idea in reminding you of your list of things to do!” I replied.
I also told David and Margaret that they weren’t alone in their dilemma, and introduced them to the Rainbows for All Children Program. I explained that it is a free support group for children to help them weather the challenges of divorce, death, incarceration, abandonment, military deployment of a parent, or any loss of a significant love one. It is a free resource for grieving children.
They both said they would love to join the group. I spoke to their parents, and they agreed to it.
Avoid stress and chaos by having two sets of everything
For parents who also have children living in two households, here are a few suggestions to make it easier for your kids:
• Support, reassure and love your children unconditionally; not only in words but in actions.
• Do not talk negatively about the other spouse; focus on your children always!
• Be proactive, not reactive. If for some reason you catch yourself reacting harshly to your child, take a hold of yourself, breathe deeply, and, when you are ready, explain to them that you weren’t upset at them, but by what they had done.
• Have two sets of everything your children need: one at your home, and one at the other parent’s. It costs more, but makes it so much easier for everyone concerned.
Packing, unpacking and repacking every week is hectic and can be nerve-racking. And knowing that everything that’s needed is already there can help ease tensions. These items can include:
• chargers for cellphones, computers, iPods, etc.
• underwear, socks, etc.
• jeans, shorts, comfortable shoes and other clothing
• dress outfit and shoes
• school supplies (a fully stocked desk at each house makes it easy to do homework in both locations)
• toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, razors, face wash, soap, lotion, etc. (no need to lug these back and forth)
• white board – have a whole-month calendar, and a weekly calendar, as reminders for both households
Switching homes every week can be tough on kids.
Stay cool when negotiating with your ex about the house rules that you expect your children to follow. House rules should be consistent with your discipline, children’s responsibilities and expectations – in both households.
Divorce is heartbreaking for children left behind. However, with your and your ex’s unfailing commitment, care, compassion and unconditional love, your kids will flourish and become productive citizens.
Marie Virata Halloran, RN, is certified in death and grief studies. She is the executive director for Rainbows for All Children Guam/LifeWorks Guam.