How to help my daughter adjust to her new custody arrangement?
May 8, 2007 12:59 PM   Subscribe

Is there anything I can do to help my child adjust to her new custody arrangement? (And possibly make life a little easier on me, too?)

My ex and I share custody of our 3 year old daughter. We recently changed our arrangement to include alternating weekends. When I get her back, she's in great spirits, happy, etc. But the first moment she doesn't get her way with me, she turns into a little nightmare. She throws a tantrum, argues, resists her "time out", etc. All my usual little tricks for dealing with her don't work. And her behavior definitely falls out of the norm for her. And usually goes back to the norm within a few days.

I've informed my ex, he's supportive, but somehow thinks this is something I'm doing wrong (which may explain why we're not together but that's a different story) because she's an angel with him.

Is this a passing phase until she becomes used to her new schedule? Is there anything I can do to help this transition and keep sane? Any tips or advice are much appreciated.
posted by kelzabel to Human Relations (23 answers total)
maybe she breaks his balls, too, but he's lying to you about that. it happens.
posted by matteo at 1:14 PM on May 8, 2007

Yeah. Fucking with your exes' heads is almost the only positive after a relationship ends badly. He's lying to you.
posted by solid-one-love at 1:23 PM on May 8, 2007

Does he have her at other times, too, or just every other weekend?

Is it possible that your ex may not be disciplining her when she does the things that you are punishing her for, so she is getting angry at you for being The Mean One (her thoughts, not mine!)?.

Depending on your relationship with your ex, you could each try to keep a list of the naughty things she does and the punishment you give her. That way you can make sure she is receiving consistent signals of what behavior is acceptable. Just make sure your daughter doesn't find out, or she will think you are reporting her to Santa.
posted by gatorae at 1:28 PM on May 8, 2007

Bet'cha he spoils her rotten to maintain that angelic disposition. I bet a bunch of MeFites of divorced parents are going to jump in to let you know that if she's pulling this with you, it's because it's working with him.
posted by desuetude at 1:31 PM on May 8, 2007

Okay, I'm going to give the ex the benefit of the doubt here and suggest that kids that age tend to be really intense about structure and schedule. The alternate-weekends thing might actually be disturbing to her on a level she's unable to articulate... so it comes out when she's settled in back and home and feels safe with her primary caregiver. Just a thought. :)
posted by thehmsbeagle at 1:33 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Gatorae, he has her Wednesdays as well. From what I gather, their time is spent bopping from place to place to visit his family members. (I don't think they spend much alone time together)

Time with me is less frenetic as we don't have to rush and pack a bunch of visits into a small period of time.
posted by kelzabel at 1:41 PM on May 8, 2007

Another vote that you can't assume your ex is being honest about her behavior at his house. Alternatively, he might not be lying: maybe he always gives her her way no matter what, and thereby avoids any tantrum.... which is also conveniently making her harder to discipline at your home.

I suspect that you're right this is a passing phase, but it might not be merely about her becoming used to the new schedule. I bet this is a combination of "three-year-old headstrong willfulness" meets "becoming aware of how to play Mommy and Daddy."

Don't feel badly about your child playing both houses: all kids of divorce do it some extent. It's one of the perks, like double Christmas and more toys.

Just remain firm. She'll eventually learn that Mommy has one way of doing things and Daddy another.

You also should really talk to your ex and try to equalize the discipline situation. It's terrible on the kid when there's no bedtime at Daddy's, no snack rules, no TV rules, no one has to pick up after themselves.

Still, the catalyst might be as simple as the fact that frequent home transition is hard on the very young ones. I don't know how your custody schedule works but she might be having a really hard time with the number of switches. Our 7-year-old was having a hard time with changing houses at least three times a week (which is what alternating weekends was doing to her), so we rearranged calendars to create the same amount of time in both households but with fewer switches.

As for making life easier on yourself, I recommend the Love and Logic books. Here are their early childhood titles. It really reduces tantrums, arguing and generally crazy-making behavior, and it gives you a playbook, of sorts, so that you have a system to follow and aren't always having to figure out "what do I do now?" Highly, highly recommend.
posted by pineapple at 1:41 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

My take is she feels safe to act out with YOU.
posted by konolia at 1:50 PM on May 8, 2007

When I was 8, my parents had me every other weekend. It really sucked because my parents are very very different people. My mother is organized, full of rules, pays attention to details... she was at times way too strict and more than a little anal-retentive but she also worked hard to take care of me. My father, on the other hand, was more immature than I was. I had to tell HIM what to do sometimes, I had to take care of him because he was just pretty clueless about some things. His house had no rules, he didn't even notice when I left to go on a bike ride & didn't come home for 4 hours. It could've been hailing and he wouldn't have even thought to tell me to bring a jacket. In my mind, I hate to say it but the man shouldn't really be responsible for a dog let alone a kid.

What was awful was that there was no consistency between the two places. If anything, my dad would try to overcompensate by letting me do things my mother would've hated just to show me how much better he was. It wasn't rare that they would fight eachother through me using their parenting style... instead of PARENTING ME.

So here's my advice... sit down with your ex and get on the same damn page about what you want for your child. About how you feel about things, what the rules for your child are going to be. If your child doesn't get to eat snacks before dinner at one house? Try to make that happen at the other too. If there are certain television hours? Make them consistent. Or at least BE AWARE of the rules at the other house so you know what they are.

Children may say they don't like rules, but that's not true. They need to know that you are the adults and you are in charge and keeping them safe. That makes them feel cared for. Work together to parent your child because even if your relationship didn't work out, you are both responsible for doing the best possible job of protecting and raising this person you created together.
posted by miss lynnster at 1:51 PM on May 8, 2007

Forgot to mention... she may be acting out with you because of her frustration regarding the things I mentioned above. Honestly, being shuttled around is really stressful for a kid. They just want a home where they can feel safe.
posted by miss lynnster at 1:52 PM on May 8, 2007

he has her Wednesdays as well.

Aha, so you're on the Mom = M/Tu, Dad = W, Mom = Th, Mom and Dad alternate weekends schedule.

That's the one that our 7-year-old just could not manage. If you think about it, that has the kid switching homes sometimes four times a week. She just could never get settled into a routine and we saw loads of acting out. And this was with a third grader who could clearly communicate her frustrations. I can't imagine how hard it would be on a littler one.

So, I'm going to amend and say I suspect this is likely a transitioning problem.

We switched to a week-on/week-off arrangement. I don't think that would work for a 3-year-old, but you might find something that works within the principle, which was to combine longer chunks of custody for the child's benefit, rather than a day here, two days there, a couple days here, two days there.

We also began utilizing a big calendar in the kitchen, and days at Mommy's house were marked in one color and days at Daddy's house were marked in another. She could then see for herself where she would be and when, and it gave her a feeling of control -- rather than waking up each morning and wondering where she'd be laying her down that night.

Four years later we still use the calendar, marked out a month in advance. Now it helps her plan sleepovers and such, but it was a very valuable tool when we was smaller and we needed to help her maintain some sense of structure.
posted by pineapple at 1:53 PM on May 8, 2007

I vote passing phase. This Ask Moxie post talks about how difficult three-year-olds can be; it sounds like yours is acting pretty normally.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 2:03 PM on May 8, 2007

(that is, "laying her head down")
posted by pineapple at 2:07 PM on May 8, 2007

Response by poster: Our schedule before this one was even wonkier. He had her Wednesdays & Fridays with the pick up/drop off Saturday afternoon. So she was scuttlebutting back and forth all week long with relative ease. It's only been the recent change with her seeing Daddy every other weekend for longer periods of time where she's been a smelly turd.
posted by kelzabel at 2:09 PM on May 8, 2007

Response by poster: Oh, and I really like the idea about getting on the same page with my ex with regards to rules and regulations for consistency. That's a big DUH, isn't it?
posted by kelzabel at 2:11 PM on May 8, 2007

My SO's kids are terrors after coming back from SO's ex. This has been the experience of other divorced parents I know as well. Age doesn't seem to be a factor.

I vote for "phase", "communicating with the ex on behaviour and how you'll both respond to it so that everyone is consistent", and "give it time, she'll get used to it".
posted by no, that other sockpuppet at 2:36 PM on May 8, 2007

It's only been the recent change with her seeing Daddy every other weekend for longer periods of time where she's been a smelly turd.

Oh, that's a huge "aha." He's not disciplining her at all, is my guess, and 24 hours of it wasn't enough to upset her routine on the prior schedule... but a full weekend does, and so she's pushing back every time she returns home to your house and goes through "eh? wot's all this rules business?"

Talking to your ex and setting common expectations will definitely be a big help.

Don't be too surprised if you get some initial pushback from him, though, when he sees this as your problem, not his -- so why should he have to adjust his life just because Darling Angel won't behave for you? ...Or maybe I'm projecting what my own kid's bio mom would do.

If he balks because he isn't really a good disciplinarian and prefers playing good cop to your bad cop, Love & Logic might help since the methodology allows both parents to play good cop.
posted by pineapple at 2:56 PM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, I swear I do not work for the Love & Logic Foundation or get any money or profit from them in any way. We just really love their techniques and have found their system to be a valuable way to handle independence struggles and behavior and self-control issues while maintaining everyone's dignity and sanity.
posted by pineapple at 2:58 PM on May 8, 2007

Just to propose another possibility: up until a couple of months ago, I had shared custody of our daughter with my ex-wife, week-on, week-off. Last year, when my daughter was turning 11, my ex commented that she was getting mouthy and acting up. I never noticed any such thing. My take on it is that when it comes to disrespectful behaviour, far from being the lax one, I'm the stern one. My ex got the acting up because she has set looser boundaries than I have.

Two things that definitely helped us were:

- a commitment to discuss parenting issues regularly
- a clear understanding that we might have different rules in each house, but that they would be consistent in each house. Ie, at my place, my rules hold, and I'm consistent with them. If your mum serves ice cream for breakfast, that's cool at her place - in my house we have porridge.

My reason for saying this has worked is that we broke up when my daughter was five. She's almost twelve now, and we have consistently been told by teachers, friends and aquaintances that our daughter is stable, well-behaved, and happy.

I agree with the poster earlier who suggested that you need longer periods of sole custody, like a week. Every couple of days is like constant change. Even if you and your ex were in amazing harmony in your parenting practice, that would be an awful lot of transitioning and settling down for your child.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:25 PM on May 8, 2007

Parents who don't have day-to-day custody of their children often do spoil their kids. Sometimes, rarely, this is malicious ("heh heh she'll hate Mom and all her rules! I can get back at the horrible evil &*#!"), and when it is malicious it's really a form of child abuse. Most of the time, though, it seems to be unconscious and caused by the non-custodial parent's insecurity.

The non-custodial parent may feel that now that their children don't see them every day, the children are suddenly going to fall out of love with them or begin to compare them unfavourably with their other parent's new boyfriend or girlfriend. This sometimes makes them do anything they can to make sure their children don't resent them or dislike them, and often that includes spoiling them, not having rules, etc. It's not fair to the kids, but it's basic human nature.

Sometimes, too, the non-custodial parent wasn't the one who during the marriage disciplined the children or made the rules. Suddenly they have to be a hands-on parent with no backup for the first time, and they simply may not know what to do.
posted by watsondog at 8:02 PM on May 8, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks to all who posted. Very good information here. Much appreciated.
posted by kelzabel at 10:30 AM on May 9, 2007

Your ex may or may not be lying about your daughter's behavior when she is with him. What is important is that you stay calm, steady, and unemotional during her outbursts and insist on appropriate conduct. She is probably testing the both of you because of feeling torn loyalties (this is such a heartbreaker for the children of divorce) - you even more than her Dad. If your situation is anything like mine, she will learn that she needs to (and wants to) take you seriously- that you are the stable, responsible, loving provider of security.

I have a 5 yr. old. The custody arrangement is every other weekend w/ (irresponsible, arrested development) Dad Wednesday-Sunday.

Unfortunately, his father and I are unable to co-parent- all of the things that undermined our marriage, also undermine cooperating to raise our child and he finds so many ways to subtly disparage me and or my ways and choices to our son.

Our visitation arrangement seems to work well for my son- it minimizes a lot of switching and he gets ample time w/ his Dad, who, aside from trying to dig at me all too often, is a decent father and adores his son.
posted by mistsandrain at 12:39 PM on May 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is a very late posting, but I deal with the same exact situation...except I am the loving stepmom. I have been in my daughter's life since she was one and a half and that was 3 years ago, so in her eyes, I am mommy. My husband and I had a quarter year agreement with his ex. One quarter with her, who was out of state, and the next quarter with us and so on.

I know exactly what you mean with the tantrums and the attitude. Things are sometimes worse for us because my little girl forgets everything we teach her as far as education. When kids are toddlers, they soak up everything and we took advantage of that, but when she would leave for months and then come back, she would forget not only her manners, but simple development things that kids her age should already know because her biological mother simply did not keep up.

The best thing we did, first and foremost, was we did not contact his ex about it. We tried once and like your ex, denied of anything. Although since she was there longer than your child, it is easier to pin point where things are coming from. So we stopped telling her or trying to have any communication with her about misbehavior. Also, do not try to give him advice about what to do. If he is desperate and truly cannot handle it, he will ask for advice, otherwise, he is going to think you are trying to be the main parent and controlling him...which will lead in many arguments, trust me.

Focus on your child and only your child. It happens so often with custody situations that the children get tangled in the webs of the adults. Establish a routine discipline system. My husband and I have steps:

1) take something away. If they are not playing their toys properly, take it away. If they are not eating properly, take it away. And more importantly, explain to her why she is getting things taken away and have her explain it back to you.

2) if the behavior does not stop, send her to the corner, or to time out for 5 minutes. If she behaves badly, add another 5 minute increment.

3) if time at the corner went well, let her go back to playing with her toys. If she continues to misbehave, send her back to the corner, but with an additional 5 minutes than the last time.

I know not many people agree with the time out, but this has been proven to be very effective for us. And as hard as it may seem, you must forget her misbehaviors that you may think or know may be due to your ex. It is a frustrating situation and will be like talking to a wall if you go this route. If your child misbehaves, just approach her calmly and act as if nothing had changed and that she was home with you all of the time. If things are unstable for you, imagine how unstable things are for her little psyche.
posted by dnthomps at 5:10 AM on July 27, 2007

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