How children of separated parents cope with moves between Mum and Dad

I have been thinking a lot recently about the situation children find themselves in when their parents have separated and they spend time with both Mum and Dad and how difficult the transitions are that they have to manage in that process. Inevitably when couples part there are irreconcilable differences between them and as they get on with their lives separately it is likely that these differences either increase or become more entrenched. This means that children have to adjust not only to different places in which to be but also to different standards and expectations of behaviour and potentially very different ways of doing things. 

As they move from one to the other they have to modify their ways of doing things and remember what matters where and to whom. While they are undoubtedly affected by the loss of the parent they leave, they also have to contend with the other set of language, traditions and ways of doing things. It seems to me that this adds to the difficulty of transition and may well go towards explaining some of the 'difficult' behaviour parents sometimes see when they return from the other parent. We don't seem to talk about this much and I wonder if we would do well to consider what might be described as 'transition anxiety' a little more. Separation anxiety is well known and researched and advice about how to manage this is readily available. It is important that at times of transition adults help children to manage their anxiety by keeping their own feelings in check and by managing the handover with care. Rather than re-invent the wheel I would like to offer the following sensible advice which comes from Christchurch Psychology (

Make the transition times predictable, reliable and consistent. Both parents have to make certain that times of collection or drop off are adhered to, with minimal disruption to routines and plans. Do not undermine the other parent’s parenting – it undermines the child’s trust and security and ultimately backfires, as the research shows that when one parent complains about or undermines the other parent, the complaining parent is the one who is criticised by the child in young adulthood.  Keep arguments or possibly heated discussions with the other parent for private phone calls – make the handover times as neutral and upbeat as possible. Keep your attention on a short, sweet goodbye to the child with some advice to have fun. This allows the child to leave feeling that you are going to be OK without them and that they have your permission to enjoy their time with the other parent. Make sure that you give your child a clear message that you see his or her time with the other parent as an important and positive experience, and that you trust the other parent to cope with any difficulties that may arise. For example, if the child becomes distressed while with the other parent, allow the other parent to be the parent and comfort the child. This builds the secure base for your child with both parents and encourages positive social and emotional development. Make sure that you have a plan to keep yourself happy and productive while your child is with the other parent. Meet friends, exercise, indulge in selfish pleasures such as making your favourite food, reading as long as you like, or lying in the bath for an hour!. This can also be an important time to spend time alone with a new significant other. Remember that if your child can see that you are happy and positive, they can be relaxed and get on with their own development rather than worry about yours!

In addition to these helpful points I think it could be helpful to add another, specifically to deal with managing the kind of transition anxiety I have been talking about:

  • Make sure you allow time for the child to re-adjust to the way of doing things in this home and be aware that they may get things 'wrong' as far as you are concerned. Don't blame them, or the other parent, for what is a perfectly reasonable, if different, way of doing things - they will soon remember your rules and get back into the swing. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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