Most children rank summer as the best time of the year — they look forward to a more relaxed schedule and the opportunity to enjoy their friends, summer sports and the neighborhood pool.
For many children, however, the season also might bring a temporary move to their other parent’s home for summer visitation or shared custody.
A divorce or separation is likely to trigger new emotions for each family member, said Charlotte Shoup Olsen, K-State Research and Extension specialist in family issues.
A parent who has custody of a son or daughter during the school year, might be reluctant to send the child or children to the former spouse’s new home. A parent who travels for business might agonize about summer child care when away from home. If a former spouse has remarried, emotional issues likely are to intensify.
“It’s not easy for divorced or separated parents to set their feelings aside. They may feel angry, disappointed, lonely, or frustrated about financial concerns. These are all normal feelings, but venting them to a young child is not advisable,” Olsen says.
Divorced or separated parents don’t have to be best friends, but they do need to be able to communicate effectively about their children. Treating a former spouse with the same courtesy as you would treat a business associate works well for some people. When person-to-person or telephone conversations don’t work, a business letter might be what it takes until emotions are more under control.
Once visitation has been arranged, Olsen encourages parents to talk to their children about the change positively, as a new opportunity. Helping younger children pack is encouraged: favorite books or a few toys can make their new home environment seem more familiar.
Parents who stay behind should let their children know that they will call or write to them, and that they will look forward to the time when they are together again.
For parents who are preparing their home for their children’s arrival, Olsen recommends some planning to ease the transition:
• Allow a child his or her own space. It can be as large as a room or as small as a drawer, but it is important for a child to know that it is their place.
• Allow time for the child to settle in. Introduce new routines or new family members gradually. Olsen advises parents that one-on-one time with their children is especially important during the first few days of visitation. “Spending time at the playground, walking to the library together or going out to eat can be reassuring to a child. Activities that allow time for talk are preferable to going to a movie, where there is little time to communicate with each other,” she says.
• First visits are usually the most stressful, Olsen warns. When a child is returning, they are already familiar with the household rules and other people, such as a stepparent or sibling, who might live there. A child who has been a frequent visitor also might have had time to develop friendships with other children in the neighborhood.
Parents can help their children get acquainted with enrollments in recreation or craft classes, a summer reading program at the library, baseball team, tennis or other sports lessons. Asking children to help choose recreational activities usually works better than too many surprises, she says. When one parent enjoys better economic circumstances that another, spending appropriately can ease tensions between parents and keep children’s expectations in check.
“The custodial parent should not try to replace the absent parent,” Olsen says. Children who are too young to write should be encouraged to send pictures, a craft project, or other reminders to the absent parent. Communicating thoughtfulness, or a connection, is as important as the message itself, she says.
“When children of divorced or separated parents feel secure with their parents’ love and acceptance, they have a happier outlook and adjust — or readjust — to other life circumstances more easily,” Olsen says. “A family is precious. Circumstances can change family structure, but each member of the family remains special.”
Linda K. Beech is Ellis County Extension agent for family and consumer scienc