Even if you and your ex are on good terms, transitions that occur during a separation or divorce can be tough on kids.
Think of all the things going on for them:
- Different rules
- Different expectations
- Moving belongings back and forth
- Different surroundings
- Change in routine
Want more? Read Helping Children with Divorce
These challenges are often reflected in your child’s behavior. In upsets and tantrums, whining and moaning. Oh. And full-on attitude.
“Dad says I can watch whatever I want.”
“YOU never let me do ANYTHING!”.
“I can’t wait to get out of here again!”
And transitions can be just as tough on co-parents too.
After that time away, all you want is a smooth return.
You want to know that things are OK. That you can trust your ex. Instead you get accusations and big feelings flung back at you.
You want to throw your arms around your child and let them know how much they’ve been missed.
Instead? You get misunderstandings. Tension. Anger.
Before you know it, you’ve both blown up.
Doors slam. Harsh words are said.
And unless you resolve to resolve the cycle continues and resentments build.
And the one thing you did know you wanted to avoid begins to happen: That sneaking suspicion you have that your kid is taking sides becomes the reality.
Want more? Here's 12 Books for Children About Divorce
There has to be a better way.
There has to be a better way, and there is. What’s great is that it’s easy to implement, and it works like gold.
It melts tension and negativity, and it meets your child right where they are.
And it builds a really strong foundation for the relationship you share – whatever challenges you face.
What is this tool?
It’s called Special Time.
The Best Way To Reconnect After Your Kids Get Home
Distance and change cause disconnection, and is the underlying reason behind why your child returns home grumpy, defiant, or unsettled.
Special Time bridges that gap.
It’s a simple way to play where your child takes the lead. And that one simple act that you set up serves to restore and reconnect.
Here’s how to get started.
Set The Expectation
Ahead of your child coming home, set an expectation with yourself that your child’s transition home may be bumpy. It’s natural, and you can hold space for your child to have those feelings.
Slow Down, Tune In
When your child walks in the door, take a second to tune into them. Be available.
Don’t say much, but don’t get distracted or caught up in busywork.
If they want to vent, listen in. Stay out of any “Dad says / Mom says,” arguments, but do offer your child space to air how they feel.
If they cry, scream or tantrum, give them that time to let those feelings out.
Listen, and Keep Quiet
You don’t need to say much at all during these moments, and your child will pick up on your supportive presence. Simple sentences like “I see this is hard for you,” or “I’m sorry it’s been a tough time,” work well.
When your child is settled, offer Special Time.
Say, “Let’s do anything you want for the next 5 minutes.”
Set your phone, an egg timer or the kitchen timer and then follow your child in whatever they want to do for that time.
Special Time works because your child’s brain is able to sense the close, positive attention you are pouring in, so don’t allow any distraction for that whole 5 minutes.
Try your best not to direct the play your child chooses. That means:
- Not introducing a new character into the roleplay your child sets up.
- Not directing them: Don’t suggest how play should go. If your child wants to build blocks, stay away from suggesting what to build, or setting up a competition on who could build highest, or even telling them where not to place a block because you can see it will fall down.
- Not shepherding them: “You can’t do that because…,” or “Watch out,” or “Stay over there while I…”
- Not sticking to rules: “But it’s my turn,” “You have to do this next,” or “The instructions say to do this,” are all banned! Just in this moment, your child can make up the rules as he or she wishes.
Warning! This can be really hard at first because as parents we are so used to controlling things – but it does get easier over time.
If you find yourself wanting to control Special Time, notice the feeling and then let it go. Or after you hear yourself offer direction, take a breath and then make a promise to try not to for the rest of the time.
Go easy on yourself, but know that when you can let the control go, a unique bond of trust builds over time between you and your child.
Will Your Child Immediately Stop Complaining?
The short answer is no. They still have two different worlds to navigate, they still have feelings about the changes that will absolutely be apparent within two different households, and they will still feel the strain of that, and will no doubt have things to say about it.
But this act of five minutes spent together breeds a safe space that is a comfort and gives you space to offer compassion about all that they face during these times of transition.
Mom and co-parent Melanie Atkins offered Special Time to her 6-year-old daughter when she came back from her dad’s house.
“She often struggles with the transitions both going and coming back,” Melanie says. “When she returns, she is full of attitude, “Daddy said this, I’m allowed to stay up all night on my tablet. It’s not fair I don’t get to play on my tablet here.”
“I do a bit of staylistening and then move into Special Time shortly after she is home. This has been great for connection and helps me get back in the loving zone with her,” she says.
Special Time lets them know that you are right there for them, happy to be back in their company. And that makes the return a whole lot sweeter.
Your Child Might Reveal Their Issues
It can be interesting to see how kids choose to use Special Time. Sometimes you might notice your child using Special Time to work on specific issues around their transition. This could include:
- Games where they direct a lot and take a real lead in control (as they work on feeling out of control).
- Play where separation is a theme (Maybe a doll has to pack a bag and leave).
- Play where they set up lots of rules (as they work on expectations or different rules in each situation).
- Games where they get to break rules. (Like when you play Snake and Ladders and they move past the number of spots the dice called for, or hide and seek where they deliberately peek through their fingers).
Melanie recalls her daughter requesting imaginary play where she asked Melanie to be a pet dog, and then proceeded to give orders. “I followed her lead for everything! She asked me to “Sit down, lie there, no don’t do that, stay right here,” Melanie says.
“It was clear she was working on feeling powerless and the fact her life feels full of boundaries and rules,” she says.
Special Time Also Gives You More Patience
This tool is not a one-way relationship-fixer. It gives you a moment to tune into your child in a really meaningful way too.
“The other day my daughter was having a moan about the rules in our house and the fact I limit her time on screens,” says Melanie.
She set up Special Time soon after.
“Special time always make a huge difference to how I feel. It allows me to be more compassionate with her through these transitions and totally changes the dynamic, after even just 5 minutes of this healing time together,” she says.
Read more about how mindful play helps you and your child – and get a free Special Time checklist
You May Not Expect This, But It’s Totally Normal
One other thing you may see is a big upset during or at the end of Special Time. Although this might sound like the opposite of a joyful return home, it is a pathway to the calm and connection you want.
It happens because your child feels safe enough in your attention to let some of these bigger fears and feelings they have collected to be exposed. Once they have been released, they can move into a state of greater contentment and calm.
The rest of your day is likely to unfold with less drama and less yelling.
Does Special Time Always Need to be 5 Minutes?
Special Time works no matter how much time you have. Five minutes is a great starting point, but if you can manage 10 minutes of no distraction and focus on your child go ahead. The more time you can give, the more connection your child will soak up. And you’ll see them open up and be more responsive to things you ask of them afterwards.
It’s less effective to promise a longer Special Time, so if you know you can’t deliver, don’t. It’s better to do less time with a higher level of focus on your child and their play.
Is Special Time a One-Hit Wonder?
When you begin Special Time, many co-parenting parents notice an immediate uplift. They’re children help out more without being asked, are more generous, and you’ll laugh together and have more patience for each other.
And it isn’t a one-hit-wonder. The more you can schedule in Special Time, the more secure your relationship feels. You have regular moments to check-in and just be in each other’s company. To your child, this feels like you are regularly investing time in them.
What could feel better to a child after facing change and uncertainty?
In fact, Special Time can be such a restorative relationship tool, many kids start asking for it when they feel uncertain or insecure.
What to do if your child says they don't want Special Time? Read this.
You can also try using Special Time when you anticipate change coming, like right before your child leaves for their visitation.
One of the biggest questions parents have when we are going through a separation or divorce is how to protect our kids.
Special Time is one amazing, trust-building tool you can use.
A way to reach them, anchor them and let them know they are still loved, no matter what.
In return, your kids are happier, less stressed and go easier on you.
Next time your child comes home from your ex feeling grumpy, emotional or full of attitude, try Special Time and let us know how it goes.