Lesson 6 of 7 - learn how to parent effectively

When a Minor Child
Changes Homes

Manage Many Changes

by Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/parent/divorce/kid_moves.htm

Updated  03-07-2015

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      This is one of a series of Lesson-6 articles on learning what minor kids need, and filling them and your own needs well enough over two decades. Effective parenting is the keystone to breaking the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

      The complex process of a minor child changing their custodial residence after parental divorce can vary between "very cooperative" to "very conflictual." The degree of harmony or conflict depends largely on how much adult communication and planning went into deciding if, when, how, and why to make this important family change.

      This article provides:

  • premises about child-residence changes, including healthy and unhealthy reasons for changing;

  • a summary of family-system changes you can expect from such a change;

  • a summary of what typical minor kids need during a residence change; and...

  • resources for managing an unexpected and/or conflictual child-residence change.

       The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it 

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 6 (or 7 if you're a stepfamily)

  • 3 common stressors caused by family changes

  • Typical child developmental and family-adjustment needs

  • perspective on child custody and effective child visitations

      This brief YouTube video on what kids of divorcing parents need offers perspective on what you'll read below. The video mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement Web site - I've reduced that to seven.


      Note whether you A(gree), D(isagree), or (?) aren't sure about these ideas...

      1) The degree of harmony or heartburn that results from a minor child changing homes is directly proportional to who's really making this change: parents' true Selves  or ''false selves.'' So parents who have worked patiently at Lesson 1 (reduce psychological wounds) have the best chance for managing a residence transfer that fills everyone's primary needs well enough. (A  D  ?)

      2) Residence shifts are best viewed as family-system changes, not just "address changes" for the relocating child/ren. These shifts work best long-term when everyone affected feels their needs and opinions have been thoughtfully respected. (A  D  ?)

      3) Child-dwelling and custody changes should be made by all affected parents, including stepparents - not by minor kids, siblings, legal or counseling professionals, or relatives. Asking a child "Do you want to live with me or your (other parent)?" abdicates parental responsibility and risks overwhelming a child with confusion, guilt, and anxiety. Learning and considering kids' feelings and wishes in choosing their primary residence is important in deciding. (A  D  ?)

      4) Parents who know how to dig down to discern the primary needs (plural) that motivate a child's residence change have better chances for a smooth transition than adults who focus only on surface needs. (A  D  ?)

      5) Parents who (a) understand values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles, (b) expect them to erupt before, during, and after a child changes homes, and who (c) can use effective-communication knowledge and skills to resolve all three stressors are more likely to have smooth transitions. (A  D  ?)

      Notice what you're thinking and feeling. How do your beliefs compare with these premises?

Why Change Residences?

      There are healthy and unhealthy reasons to change. Healthy means "the overall long-term quality of everyone's personal growth and family relationships is improved by this change." An alternate definition is "the nurturance level of both homes remains the same or improves over time because of this change." Reasons refer to the parents' primary needs that cause the child to change homes.

      What are some healthy primary needs?

We parents need the safety and the wholistic health of all our kids to increase.

We need the frequency and intensity of child-related conflicts in and between both homes to decrease.

We need this child to experience a balance of nurturing from male and female parents.

We need to protect and strengthen the primary relationship/s (e.g. marriages) in each parenting home, long term.

We need to resolve a local family crisis (e.g. a disabled or overwhelmed custodial parent), and can see no better solution than a (temporary or permanent) residence change.

      Do you see other healthy reasons for a child's residence change? Here are some unhealthy primary reasons...

  • To punish or get revenge on someone

  • To improve someone's financial security

  • To appease an aggressive or controlling family member or other person

  • To accommodate a child's desires for more freedom, less limits, and/or things like a bigger room, a PC, car, TV, phone, pet, "better school," different friends, "more fun,"...

  • To provide companionship and/or life-purpose for the receiving adult

  • To lower conflicts between a stepparent and a child and/or stepsiblings who "don't like each other" and "can't get along"

  • To avoid admitting that someone made wrong re/marital choices

  • To avoid responsibility for improving parents' communication effectiveness

  • To appease someone who feels strongly that a child "needs a sibling"

  • To reduce a parent's excessive shame and guilt

  • To follow the advice of some lay or professional "expert"

  • To avoid difficult parental responsibilities

  • To end stressful adult court battles and legal expenses

  • To avoid someone's grief over major losses (broken bonds)

  • (Add your own) 

      Do you agree that some primary reasons for a child's residence change are healthier than others? Note that there are more unhealthy reasons than healthy ones, and there are lots of chances for denial here - i.e. parents' masking or ignoring their real motives for a residence change. Such denials occur when one or more parents are psychologically wounded and don't (want to) admit that.  

      Whether your adults have healthy reasons and an effective change-management plan or not...

What Changes Can You Expect?

      Each resident in your two homes will experience subtle to jarring changes as your child's relocation "sinks in." The combined changes will affect your individual and family harmony or stress. See which of these shifts in and between your two homes are likely to be significant in your unique situation...

Priorities  - who's needs get the most attention, from whom, and what needs?

Daily and special routines - like who gets the bathroom first, getting ready for school and work, rejoining after school or work, who watches what on TV, dinner times, home-maintenance chores, laundry, grocery shopping, getting ready for bed, and what happens in the house on typical weekends.

Household roles and rules - a role is a set of home and family responsibilities, like taking out the trash, paying the bills, feeding pets, and setting and enforcing disciplinary limits. Your child's moving will alter many responsibilities and rules (how roles are performed, and by whom) in both homes - specially if accompanied by a legal-custody change. Role and rule changes will probably create some disputes over who gets to do what, or doesn't have to do what.

Finances - this may be a significant source of transitional conflict, as regular and special child-support and living expenses shift and stabilize. Insurance coverages and/or visitation expenses may shift. Conflicts are specially likely if the child's residence, custody, and child-support changes are court-ordered. Conflicts over "money" are never really about money!

Companionships and alliances - residents in each home will adjust who they spend time with, and how. Siblings may lose or gain a playmate, or a nurturing or antagonistic older (step)brother or sister.

      More changes to expect from a child changing homes...

Personal and couple privacies - adults and kids all will experience a little to a lot more "alone time." The noise level in both homes may shift, which may affect privacies and intimacy.

Space - A bed, closet, drawers, and part or all of a bedroom will empty in the original dwelling, and fill up in the receiving home. Kids may gain or lose a roommate, wanted or not. Meals will feature an empty chair in one home, and a filled chair in the other.

Household conversational focus - the pattern of what residents talk about, and with whom, will change - probably including telephone, texting, and e-mail patterns.

Household relationship structures  - the complex pattern of roles, boundaries, ranks, and communication dynamics - i.e. how each home "runs" - will alter. So will the emotional "tone"  - the sets of most-prevalent emotions in adults and kids. The [peace > stress], [secure > anxious], and [fun > serious] balances are likely to shift in one or both dwellings.  

Child-visitation routines - the frequency, duration, and logistics (like who plans, packs, and drives), of shuttling one or more kids to visit their other parent will change. 

Legal parenting responsibilities and documents - child custody and parenting agreements may shift informally or by court order. So will primary adult supervision of the child's schooling, church, hygiene, health, socializing, and special activities. Day-care and/or baby sitting details may change.

      More changes to expect from a child changing homes...

Daily and special meals - the patterns of grocery shopping, food preparation, eating and "table-talk," snacking, and cleaning up will transform.

Holidays and special rituals (both homes) - birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, vacations, prayers, and other traditional events will change;

Some relationships with kin, friends, and acquaintances will change. Adults may lose or gain relationships with the child's friends' parents; the child will probably gain new friends and lose old ones. The frequency and nature of contact with some relatives may grow or shrink for each person in both homes. If a bioparent is single, their dating attitudes and behaviors may change.

Personal identities - i.e. how each adult and child labels themselves as individuals. "I'm the custodial father of two sons" becomes "... of one son." "I'm a full-time stepmom" turns into "...a part time..." "I live with my two sisters, my mom, and my stepdad," shifts to "I live with my dad and his Basset Hound."

School routines and study habits - the child may shift schools, courses and teachers. The attitudes and rules about homework and school performance in the receiving home may be significantly different.   

Respect - parents and co-grandparents may gain or lose self respect when a child changes homes, as in "I've done a good/bad job as a caregiver." Relatives and family friends may shift their opinions of the child's parents as persons, and/or in their caregiving roles. Custodial stepparents may feel differently about themselves and/or their partner too.

Expectations, hopes, and fears about the future - changes in these can range from minor to major, as in "This summer won't be the same," to "I thought I'd be able to use my sister's car when I got my license," to "Now we can (or can't) think about moving to Colorado and having a baby!"  

Each person's set of losses to grieve - dwelling changes usually cause tangible and invisible losses (broken attachments, or bonds). These add to each child's and adult's set of prior childhood, divorce or death, and family-formation losses that need to be mourned and accepted. And...

Participation in child-related activities or groups may shift, like T-ball, church groups, Rainbows, Indian Princesses or Scouts, school bands or teams, etc.  

      Add your own changes...



      Did you realize how many things would change when your child relocates? Like dominos, each of these 20 (!) shifts causes secondary changes to ripple through your multi-generational family's many homes. The whole intricate web of your emotional lives and relationships will oscillate for months, until each of your family members grieves what they've lost well enough and stabilizes their new routines, plans, and expectations. This is another reason for you adults to assess for blocked grief, and invest conscious effort in evolving a meaningful Good Grief policy for your homes and family (i.e. to work at Lesson 3).

      The more change-planning discussions your parents and kids have had, the more chance you've had to do anticipatory grief (mourning before your losses occur), and the faster you may recover your personal and household balances and move on. Does anything hinder such discussions among you?

      I hope this summary of changes motivates you parents to (a) plan the change well, (b) be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and needs while the residence-change is stabilizing, and (c) ask for support you need without undue anxiety, guilt, or shame.

      Each of your adults and kids will adjust to all these changes at their own pace, in their own way - e.g. privately or socially, quickly or slowly, intellectually or emotionally, dramatically or calmly... There is no "best" way to adjust, like there is no "best" fingerprint.

      Everyone in your sending and receiving homes will have special needs during your residence-change process. Everyone's emotional security and harmony will grow if you parents (a) are aware of these special needs and (b) help each other fill them as teammates. What needs?

  Kids' Common Transition Needs

      When a child in your family changes full-time homes, all residents in both homes gain new needs (discomforts). Most minor kids need help in identifying their needs, and learning to describe them in ways that make sense to themselves and their caregivers. Do you remember what that learning process was like?

      Pause and recall what it was like when you left your childhood home. Then browse this collection of typical home-changing needs to see which probably fit each of your kids - not just the girl or boy who is moving...

      Learn what the rules (shoulds, oughts, and musts) are in the new residence, and what happens when they get broken. Learn "How much freedom do I have here?" Other key rules have to do with feeling and expressing strong emotions, like anger, fear, guilt, shame, and sadness.

      Learn "Who's in charge of each home now - who makes the major decisions?"

      Learn "What are my roles here: what do others expect of me, as a boy/girl, step/child, house resident, student, neighbor, church member, relative, and person?"

      Learn "How much power do I have here: who can I get to act if I assert my needs and wants?"

      Learn "Who can I trust here - who can I tell and show my feelings, needs, and opinions to safely, with-out being ridiculed, ignored, or rejected?" This need affects how safe the child feels to grieve significant losses.

      Learn am I physically and emotionally safe here? A major underlying question kids have in most divorcing and stepfamily homes is "Will these (caregivers) stay together and not break up, like all my prior homes and families have?"

      Learn "Who can I play with / enjoy being with in this home and neighborhood? 

      Learn my territory - "What area/s of this home do I have access to, and which spaces are mine alone (rooms, closets, shelves, drawers, etc.)? Will I have enough privacy?" 

      Learn what's the routine here - who does what when, in what order? One possibility is "the routine in this home is no routine."

      Learn are there any family secrets or taboos here? If so, what happens to people who disclose or break them?

      Learn "What are the priorities in this home? How do other people's rankings mesh with mine? When we disagree, who wins?"

      Learn are all the people I care about OK enough now that I've moved? For instance "Is my little sister / depressed father / friend next door / pet OK enough without me being there?" "Will my grandmother stop being angry at my father for making me move?" There are many variations on this one! A related need is to learn "How does each person in my new house feel about (a) me, about (b) me living here now, and about (c) how I came to live here?" Am I among friends,  critics, or ghosts?

      Learn "If I don't like it here, can I go back to my other home? e.g.  "George, after all this uproar, if your little princess doesn't like living with her mother don't expect me to welcome her back into this home..."

      Learn "What will visitations (with my other parent/s, siblings, and/or special relatives) be like now?" and "Can I talk with the people in my other home on the phone when and as long as I wish?" 

      Kids who blame themselves for forcing their residence change need to reduce excessive guilt and rebuild their self-respect (if they had that to begin with)... 

      Kids who were forced to move against their wishes need to feel and express their hurt, anger, and resentments safely. They also need to clarify "Why do I have to move?" These are key parts of healthy grieving.

      Learn "Will I like the kids and teachers at my new school? Will they like me? Will it be fun or really bad? Will there be too much homework? How will I get to and home from school? Do I have the right clothes? Can I get into the activity I really liked at my other school? and... What's this neighborhood town like: what's here and not here?

      Learn "Is there someone in my new home who wants to learn my needs and to patiently and lovingly help me fill them?" That's code for "Does someone here care about me? Am I important to someone?"

      Add your own ideas about kids' transition needs...

      Note that most of these needs are for spoken and experiential information. How likely is it that your child/ren can articulate each of these needs to themselves and their parents? If they can articulate some, do they accept how normal and healthy these questions and needs are, or do they feel weird and dumb?

      How is each child in your two or more homes doing with their unique set of these transition needs? They probably can't tell you they need genuine (vs. dutiful) respect, empathy, compassion, affirmation, guidance, patience, time, honesty, encouragement, information, companionship, and consistency. Together these spell "l-o-v-e." Are each of your kids feeling loved enough recently? How do you know?

      Note that each of your parents will have their own adjustment needs. Your challenge is to fill your adults' and kids' primary needs and stay balanced as you do. Because most people have trouble identifying their mix of primary needs like those above, we think and speak shorthand code like "So has Luanda settled down yet (from changing homes)?", and "How's Tommie doing in his new situation?"   

      Many of these relocation-needs are unconscious, so. It's rare for average kids and adults to be aware of all these transition needs. That means typical adults seldom have a coherent plan to fill everyone's needs well - specially if there are teamwork barriers between them. Is this true in and between your child's two homes?

      The point: when a minor child changes custodial homes, everyone in each home has significant adjustment needs. Kids and psychologically- wounded adults usually need help identifying and expressing their needs. Intentionally identifying and filling everyone's main needs (having a thoughtful change-management plan) helps restore clarity and emotional security in child/ren's linked homes as your transition progresses. That promotes family bonding and harmony over time.

      We've been exploring well-planned residence changes for minor kids of divorcing parents. What about unplanned home-changes?

Managing Conflictual or Unplanned Residence Changes

      A childless new stepmom told others in a parenting class of meeting her two visiting stepsons at the train station the prior weekend. She had said "Gee, it looks like you guys brought everything you own for this summer's visit." The other parents' mouths dropped open when she described the wide-eyed younger boy saying "Visiting? Didn't Mom tell you that Chuck and I are moving in with you and Dad for good?" She and their dad lived in a one-bedroom urban apartment.

      This is one of two worst-case child-move scenarios. The other occurs when a court forces a minor child to move because the receiving bioparent "proved" that the custodial parent is neglectful or abusive. Both situations cause shock, hurt, rage, resentment, fear, distrust, and sadness to people in both homes. My experience is that forced residence changes can take years to adjust to if parents are wounded and can't communicate and grieve effectively. That seems to be the current U.S. norm.

      Typically there is "moderate" advance planning and significant conflict in and between both homes before and after the child moves. Ex-mate barriers + values and loyalty conflicts + relationship triangles often hinder effective move-planning. That increases everyone's adjustment needs and stresses, as the web of dwelling-changes unfolds. 

      How can you make the best of an unexpected and/or conflictual child-residence change? Options in addition to those above:

  • Review these keys for parenting kids of divorce effectively

  • Review and adjust your adult priorities, and explain them to the child/ren.

  • Adopt a long-term outlook, and make providing a stable, high nurturance environment your second or third priority after wholistic health.

  • Review and discuss these Q&A items about divorce and ex mate relationships.

  • Review and apply these options for improving adult-adult and adult-child communications

  • Review and discuss these ideas about analyzing and resolving typical relationship problems

  • If there is legal conflict between your parenting homes, read this, ask the other litigants to do so, and do your mutual best to end it for your child/ren's sake.

  • If there are charges of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), read and discuss this and act on it.

  • If someone thinks you have a "problem child," read and discuss this and this, and review these options for effective child discipline.

  • Put these wisdoms to work for all of you every day.

  • If appropriate, read and discuss this perspective on a parent moving closer or farther away after divorce

  • If appropriate, seek a single-parenting or stepfamily co-parenting support group.

      Notice how many options your family adults have for managing - and reacting to - a child changing custodial homes 


      From on 36 years' clinical research on and experience with hundreds of divorcing-family and stepfamily members and supporters, this article provides:

  • premises about minor-child residence changes, including healthy and unhealthy reasons for such shifts;

  • a summary of typical family-system changes from this shift;

  • a summary of what typical minor kids need during a residential change; and...

  • options for managing an unexpected and/or conflictual child-residence change.

      Pause, breathe well, and reflect... what are you thinking and feeling now? Do you recall why you read this? Did you get what you needed? If not - what do you need now? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

Keep Studying Lesson 6!

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      Also see this research summary on kids frequently changing schools

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