Co-Parenting on the Move: Mastering Transitions with Your Child

July 13th


Transitions and co-parenting go hand-in-hand. First comes the initial transition from romantic partners to parenting partners. Then, countless others follow as families navigate their new dynamic. These changes are tough for everyone, especially for kids who typically do the majority of the shuffling back and forth. In this week’s post, we’ll explore ways that co-parents can support their children through these transitions and bolster their resilience.

The Gist

Humans are wired to seek predictability and consistency. Change, therefore, can cause stress and anxiety, especially for kids who don’t have the skills or life experience to cope with the unknown.

Co-parenting requires many transitions that can be difficult for parenting partners and their children. The initial separation is a major life change that acts as a catalyst for many other changes, including moving residences, dividing custody time, adapting to new relationships, etc.

Co-parents can help kids cope with transitions by managing their own responses to them, validating their children’s feelings, teaching them what to expect and what they’ll need to do, and highlighting the bright side of all the changes.

Why We Struggle With Change:

Humans are creatures of habit. Our brains seek to find patterns and consistency so that we can predict what will happen and successfully navigate our world. Our emotional well-being is tied to this phenomenon as well; when things stay relatively stable, we feel safe, and when we feel safe we can reach our highest potential.

Considering how nature has wired us, it makes sense that we tend to struggle with change, even as adults. But at the same, as adults, we also have resources that children don’t:
When something challenging happens, the wisdom of years grants us the ability to reflect on all we’ve overcome before and to remind ourselves that “this too shall pass.” Youngsters, on the other hand, don’t have as many life experiences to refer back to for that comfort. We grown-ups also possess a fully-formed prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher-order thinking and problem-solving. Children’s brains do not reach full maturity until around age 25 (!!) and thus don’t have the benefit of those regulatory mechanisms to be able to control their impulses.

Difficulty with change doesn’t end in infancy or toddlerhood. The developmental, physical, cognitive, and hormonal shifts that occur at each stage of childhood impact responses to transitions.

The Transition of Parental Separation:

A transition, by definition, is a moment of change in which a person or thing moves from one condition or state to another (Source). Examples of co-parenting transitions could include:
  • transitioning from a romantic couple to parenting partners
  • Moving to separate households
  • Getting used to these new households
  • The period of time traveling from one household to another for custody time/visitation
  • Adjusting from rules and routines with one parent to rules and routines with the other parent
  • Transitioning from parenting with another parent present most of the time to parenting by yourself most of the time
  • Adjusting to the home and community environment (including neighbors, nearby friends, perhaps different schools, activities, etc.) where each parent lives
  • Going back into the dating world, beginning new romantic relationships, or re-marrying
  • “Blending” families
  • Ongoing changes and alterations to custody agreements and/or parenting agreements
The initial separation between parents is a momentous life change. It can shake kids’ perception of the world around them and their own safety; from their perspective, the relationship between the two most significant people in their lives is no longer the same, and this can lead them to question what that means for them. They may ask themselves, “Am I still loved?,” “Was it my fault?” “What will happen to me?” “What else is going to be different,” etc.
Then, as they’re grappling with that uncertainty, the separation becomes a powerful catalyst that sets off countless other changes for them, like where they live, how they spend their time, etc. Some families reach a parenting agreement in which the kids stay in their home and the parents rotate in and out for custody time, but most often, the kids are the ones who are asked to move back and forth between their two separate residences.

Transition Troubles:

Managing all these transitions can be confusing and anxiety-provoking and may lead to difficult behavior in children. Kids may be overcome with strong emotions and struggle to control themselves, and sometimes they may shut down or tantrum to protest, delay, or avoid having to shift gears. Some examples include:
  • Tantrums, emotional meltdowns (both in general and specifically at transition times like pick-ups, drop-offs)
  • Clinging to caregivers, regressing in skills or independence, saying “I can’t” or “I don’t know how”
  • Defiance, refusal to do something
  • Avoidance or distractionary behavior (laughing, running away, pretending not to hear when being asked to do something, etc.)
  • Rigidity: want to adhere to routines and rules without any flexibility; attempts to control the world around them since everything else seems out of control
  • Difficulty following directions, rules, routines

These are but a few examples; each child may respond differently depending on age, developmental level, personality, etc. It’s also imperative to note that, in general, kids are strongly impacted by their caregivers’ behavior and emotional state. How you react to whatever you have going on in your life- positive or negative- will trickle down to your child.

Caregivers’ Role in Taking Charge of the Chaos:

As the adult in the situation, you play a major role in your child’s ability to cope with transitions. You can’t control your child’s behavior, but you can control your own. So change starts with you! Here are our suggestions for ways to take charge of the chaos before it takes charge of you and your child.

Moderate your own emotions and behavior. You’re a human being and of course, you will have your own ups and downs, especially related to co-parenting. At the same time, though, you are your child’s most important role model, so at some point, you’ll need to be mindful of how you comport yourself in his presence. Check in with yourself: how are you feeling about everything? What messages are you sending to your child with the way you’ve been acting? What do you need to do for yourself to be able to be calm and present for your child?

Work with your co-parent to bring structure to your child’s life. In times of change, consistent rules and routines ground us and help us to regulate.

We've covered how to do this in our previous post and learning guides below.
Check them out

Communicate information in regard to expectations and schedules in an age-appropriate way to your child, and give your child the power to make choices when possible. Explain the rules and routines and revisit them often. Post visual reminders (picture schedules, step-by-step charts, etc.) to make them easier for your child to learn and follow. You can empower your child and decrease power struggles by weaving in opportunities for him to make decisions. For example, “We’re going to [co-parent’s] house in 10 minutes. Would you like to bring your dinosaur book or your superhero book?” An example for older children could be: “We’ll be leaving to visit [co-parent] in a few weeks and you need stuff for the trip. Let’s go shopping and you can pick out a new suitcase.”

Acknowledge and validate their feelings throughout. Kids have to be able to name and express their feelings before they can learn how to manage them. Help them to label their emotions in the moment and also have check-ins to tap into how they’re doing with everything. Let them know that it’s ok to feel all kinds of feelings about any of the changes or transitions related to co-parenting and that they can always come to you for support.

Help your child see the positives. You can shift the mood from negative to positive (or at least, better than it was before!) by outlining the pros and cons of life transitions. Talk through what will be different but also what will be the same, and what she might not like so much and what she actually might enjoy. Guide her to find things to be grateful for; you can do this by engaging in gratitude practice along with them (For more details, check out ‘Tis the Season for Thankfulness and How to Incorporate Gratitude Into Your Co-Parenting Journey). Your separation may mean a lot of changes for her, and she might miss the way things were, but perhaps she can appreciate things like the fact that you and your parenting partner aren’t fighting anymore, or that she gets to spend more one-on-one time with each of you.

Does this list leave you wanting more?

Well, check out our learning guide for more detailed suggestions.

Cooperative Co-Parenting: Tips for Transitions has you covered

A New Skill Set for Life’s Ups and Downs:

Transitions are hard, they’re inevitable, and they may be especially plentiful for kids whose parents are separated. But they can also teach countless valuable skills, like how to focus, control emotions, follow through on a task, manage time, delay gratification, be flexible, and think creatively (to name just a few)! With our tips, you have the power to push through the obstacles and get your child to the other side of all these changes with confidence and grace. Join the conversation next week as we’ll explore in greater detail how co-parents can guide their children through transitions between households. Check us out at for more!

By Koh-Parenting Services LLC

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