SUMMERMOM. WINTERDAD. Or maybe wintermom, summerdad.
With the change of seasons comes new living arrangements for many families of divorce.Children might be uneasy about going to a different home for the school holidays. Parents often are uneasy, too. But there are ways to ease the transition, say counselors.
Nancy Wilson is an elementary school counselor in the Jordan District and runs support groups for children of divorce. Wilson jotted down some of the comments children make to her:"I don't like leaving all my friends behind when I go to spend the summer with Mom."
"There's nothing to do at Dad's apartment except watch TV. I hate being alone all day when he's at work."
"When I come home Mom asks me questions about Dad's new girlfriend. It's awful."
"I don't like having to tend my mom's boyfriend's kids while they go out."Boredom, jealousy, anger, loneliness - Wilson hears it all in their voices. Working with children of divorce has left her a little impatient with parents who get divorced.
"If people, at the time of divorce, would only realize that they are never really divorced when they have kids," she says. "You are always going to be attached." She wants divorced parents to get along, to facilitate the children's happiness - instead of using kids to continue the battle.
David Dodgion, a family counselor and divorce mediator, also pleads for parental cooperation.
"Parents need to be responsible for making it easy for the kids when they move from one setting to another," he says.
He believes parents should talk to each other to work out arrangements, and that they should have a respectful attitude about the other parent's home.
He says, "Placing kids in the middle of relationship problems puts too much stress on the kids."
If you, as a parent, talk about how awful Dad is, or how silly the rules are at Mom's house, your children will worry. Dodgion says, "They'll wonder, `Is it really OK to go to this home?' `Should I not like this parent?' "
Laurie Bult, counselor at Rose Park Elementary, says it would be nice if parents spoke to each other, but the reality is that many don't. "I tell the kids, `It's not your fault,' and ask, `How can you help yourself feel better and enjoy the summer?' "
In her divorce support groups she has children role-play the move that's coming up. She says, "Pretend that it's the night before you are going to your dad's house in California."
Then their concerns surface. Children worry about forgetting things. They know they'll miss their friends. Bult helps them make lists of things to pack and write down their friends' addresses and phone numbers. They role-play asking Dad or Mom if they can call a friend once every three or four weeks.
If you are a parent whose children will be leaving soon, start making a list now, says Bult. (Don't forget favorite games and photos of friends.)
As you plan, talk with your children about what they'll miss the most, suggests Bult. If they say "dance lessons" or "my T-ball team," let your ex-spouse know. Maybe it's possible to do similar things at the other's home.
Here's another reality of sending children back and forth: You can count on hearing a child say, "But Dad (or Mom) lets me do it."
Children, even though they grieve that Mom and Dad don't live together anymore, are not above using the situation to their advantage, says Wilson.
Teenagers will threaten to go live where the rules are easier, Wilson says. Younger children (and girls are especially subtle in their manipulations, she believes) also try to work one parent against another.
If children really want to live with the other parent, they should say so, says Wilson. But don't be intimidated by threats. And don't threaten to send them to live with other parent, in moments of anger, either.
When your child says, "But that's not the way we do it at Mom's house!" Dodgion suggests answering in a way that shows respect for the other parent as well as for your own rules. Say, "Differences are OK. The fact that Mom and I do things differently is OK."
As children get older and friends become even more important, they'll be reluctant to spend weekends or summers away from their peers, says Wilson.
"Parents want to be flexible. If you tie your kid up every weekend, or every summer, that's not healthy. Kids are growing away from their family.
They need to go to the dance, hang out at the mall, spend time with their friends."
Once again, it's up to parents to make it easy on the child, says Wilson. To invite friends to come along once in awhile. To say, "It's OK if you want to do something else in June. Could you come out the first week of August?"
Anything parents can do to ease these transitions is worth the effort, Bult says. "When kids get too many changes in too short a period of time, they just tune out. We can slow things down for them in this fast-paced world."
All the experts agree that the parent who is left behind should stay in touch over the summer or over the school year. Before they leave, reassure the children that you'll be calling and writing.
And if the parent who is left behind is worried about being lonely, Dodgion suggests, "This is a nice time for self-nurturing. Take a trip. Plan some social engagements while the children are gone.
"As a single parent, you may be so caught up in what you need to do to survive that you don't take time to meet your own needs."
Rules and reassurance can make visits easier
To make parenting easier during visits, here are some suggestions from Jeffrey Dolgan, chief of psychology at Denver's Children's Hospital:
- Work out a list of rules. Determine a mutually agreeable list of what children have a right to do and how rules will be enforced.
- Include new mates in all decisionmaking.
- Rehearse behavior with the child. Discuss the situation children are going into and what is expected of them.
- Reassure the children that they are bonafide members of the new family. Don't treat children as guests or buy them off with presents.
- Communicate with the child on a year-round basis. Discuss past and future visits with the non-custodial parent. This will help to prevent tearful farewells.
- Relieve guilt or uneasiness through books about divorce or by joining support groups. Encourage children to work through issues about the divorce by joining support groups offered by school counselors or social services agencies.
In Utah such support groups are offered through county mental health offices on a sliding scale fee and through school counselors on a somewhat random basis. In most elementary schools, where the counselor, if there is one at all, will be responsible for hundreds of students, parents need to tell the teacher or counselor if they are going through a divorce and ask that their child be allowed to join a support group.