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The Shared-Custody Shuffle: Helping Your Teen Cope With Separate Households

Published on: October 26, 2013

Teen with suitcase traveling tween teen kids traveling packing getting ready to go out the doorImagine: It’s a Sunday evening, and you’ve got a busy week ahead.

But instead of relaxing and winding down, you’re trying to get organized — racking your brain and packing your bags to leave. And you’d better get it right: For the next week, you’ll be based out of your second home, with little or no access to your stuff at this one. That is, until you return to live here again the following week.

That’s life for a growing number of teens whose divorced parents share custody. Although the mother’s house is still overwhelmingly the primary home (82 percent of the time, according to the U.S. Census), more and more moms are working, tilting the trend toward more shared or joint custody, everything from every-other-weekend shifts to 50-50 splits. And that adds up to a whole lot of two-household migration for some teens.

“The commute is tough,” says 13-year-old Blake Marshall. “Especially when you’re forgetting things at one house — like homework — and needing it at the other.”

Retrieving those forgotten items isn’t always easy; in Blake’s case, his parents live 75 miles apart (his mother in Woodinville, his dad in Olympia). The one-hour-plus drive makes packing for those weekends at dad’s pretty high stakes.

“You get used to it,” says Blake, “but you miss living with both of your parents. You want to figure out how to see both of them equally, but you can’t.”

There’s no denying it: Even the best of “good” divorces is downright excruciating for kids. “Being calm, cooperative and harmonious with your ex is a must for your teen’s well-being,” says Shannon Kolakowski, a Bellevue family psychologist, “but it can’t mitigate the fact that divorce is a transition that is painful and life-changing. I wish it could.”

Still, Kolakowski says, there are things you and your ex can do to help ease the two-household migration.

Start with stability

To thrive, teens need consistency, structure and boundaries — which are all too often casualties of divorce. “Developmentally, teens are searching for their identity, trying to establish a personal identity that is separate from their families,” says Kolakowski. “When the family identity is in transition due to a divorce, it can feel chaotic.”

Getting used to a new bedroom and a new neighborhood is one thing; add to that adjusting to disparate rules and rhythms, and you’ve got a major challenge for a blossoming teen. Lori Diaz’s son Matthew was 8 years old when she divorced, and the family quickly ran into problems with inconsistent discipline that worsened during his teen years. “My parenting style is more hands on, and my ex’s parenting style is a very passive,” says Diaz, a Sammamish resident. “As a result, our two opposing styles clashed.”

When Diaz would level a consequence at her home (revoking cell phone privileges, for example), her ex refused to go along with it at his house — a classic joint-custody issue that remains a struggle for Diaz’s family to this day.

“The same rules should apply to both households,” says Kolakowski, who regularly blogs about family issues for The Huffington Post, “with the same ability to see friends and go places, same privileges, same chores, same discipline — and same schedule as much as possible in terms of bedtime, homework expectations and dinnertime.

“Parental stability is supposed to be a given,” says Kolakowski. “Work to keep the children’s lives in each household as similar as you can, so that their daily structure isn’t uprooted. Stability in their physical world promotes stability in their emotional world.”

Get organized

Kids whose parents don’t get on the same page quickly learn to work the system —and sometimes develop a painful preference for one home over the other. Says Kolakowski: “Having a favorite household causes stress for the non-favored parent, who feels rejected for sticking to their rules, and puts the favored parent in the position of being unable to set boundaries for fear of losing favor.”

How best to get in sync with your ex? Consider setting up a monthly meeting to discuss logistics and issues, suggests Kolakowski. Remember (and remind your ex, if need be) that these meetings are about what’s best for the child; try to stay positive, or at least neutral. And follow through with your end of the parenting plan: Be on time. Be reliable. And be flexible when it’s in the best interests of your kids.

And vow to keep that good-parenting pledge: Never disparage your ex in front of your kids, even when that person’s idiotic rules (or lack thereof) infuriate you. Say something like “I know your dad lets you watch TV before you do your homework. At this house, we do our work first.”

To ease the handoff, create a checklist for your child that includes the usual things he’ll need to pack, including textbooks and calculators, favorite hoodies or video games, and anything that’s cooling in the clothes dryer. Then make sure you allow plenty of time; rushed and harried packing almost certainly leads to stress and forgetting.

Watch your own attitude: Though you’ll surely miss your child, remember that her time with your ex is important for her; keep drama to a minimum. If you can’t be encouraging, aim for matter-of-fact.

Blake, whose parents divorced five years ago, has settled into a rhythm — and even found a few upsides: “Two Christmases!” he says, laughing. “But, seriously, it is always good to see the other parent after you haven’t seen them for few days. And both households have a different feel — Mom’s is more relaxed, Dad’s is more go, go, go — so sometimes a change is nice.”

Kristen Russell is a Seattle-area reporter and the co-author, with Laura Kastner, Ph.D., of the new book Wise-Minded Parenting: Seven Essentials for Raising Successful Tweens and Teens.


  • Consistent rules: Agree with your ex on rules about bedtime, chores, homework expectations and discipline. Consider setting up a monthly meeting to discuss.
  • Consistent discipline: Try to keep the same consequences in both households: If she loses cell phone privileges at one house, it’s enforced at the other.
  • Consistent schedules: As much as you can, keep similar schedules at both households, so your child has a sense of consistency.
  • Considerate behavior: When it comes to visitation, be on time, be reliable and be flexible. 
  • “Chill” the drama: Don’t allow your own emotions to contribute to a painful handoff. Keep things upbeat.
  • Checklist: Help your child ready for the transition by creating a checklist and allowing plenty of time to pack.

Source: Shannon Kolakowski, Psy.D.

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