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HOW TO HELP YOUR TODDLER WITH CUSTODY TRANSITIONS



The instability and uncertainty of a divorce can hamper a toddler’s need for routine.  When parents
separate, new rituals and routines need to be created to foster a child’s sense of security and family.

Anyone who has had children will remember the terrible twos: the domineering behavior, inflexibility,
stubbornness, extreme emotions, indecision, and the need for things to be done just in a certain way.  
Characteristic behavior of toddlers is well described by the authors of the classic child development
study
Child Behavior: The Classic Child Care Manual from the Gessel Institute of Human Development.  
A child at two and a half years old gives orders and wants exactly what they want when they want it.  If a
toddler decides "Mommy do it" they will not accept Daddy as a substitute. If they decide "me do it" then
no-one is allowed to help them no matter how difficult the task.  In
Child Behavior the authors describe
this phase as one of "disequilibrium" where toddlers find it very difficult to adapt to change, and crave
structured domestic routines. These rituals make toddlers feel safe and secure. The rigid sequences of
events and rituals can be as elaborate and impenetrable as a Japanese tea ceremony.  

It is important in the context of divorce that a very young child’s inclination toward ritual and routine
should not automatically be misinterpreted as a preference for one parent over another.  In fact, divorce
is an opportunity for both parents to help the toddler to create new rituals and routines to ease
transitions and give the toddler a sense of comfort and stability.

Crankiness, irritability, defiance, signs of regression, clinginess toward one parent, and physical
resistance to the other parent are common patterns displayed by toddlers when parents separate.  In
their book,
In The Name of The Child, Janet Johnston and Vivienne Roseby describe how parents can
develop collaborative strategies to ease transitions between parent's households using rituals and
routines.   

One strategy is to create new rituals that signal an upcoming transition in a predictable way.  Parents
can try to schedule transitions after the same daily activity, such as lunch or a nap.  While packing
belongings, soothing songs or stories can calm and reassure the child.  Often the use of transitional
objects, which travel back and forth with the child, help the child feel anchored while making these
transitions.  Creating a special place in both homes for the toddler’s belongings can also help with the
transitional process. The ritualized gathering up of a child's things is like putting together the resources
that he or she will need to "make the crossing." The ritual may be started by the parent whose custodial
time is coming to an end by gathering up the children's transitional objects and may be repeated by the
parent who receives the child, as they unpack the child's bag identifying the contents one by one.

Janet Johnston and Vivienne Roseby contrast this situation with the parents engaged in a high conflict
divorce where the parents refuse to let the child take these symbolic possessions between households
or even completely strip the child of clothing because of disputes over the "good clothes."

Parents should talk to their children about the transitional sequence of events.  A parent may say,
"today is Friday when you see your Daddy. We will pack up your special toys that you want to take to
daddy. We will read our special book and then sing the goodbye song. You will give mommy a hug and
a kiss…etc."  That special book may be
The Runaway Bunny or Love You Forever which reassures
children about the constancy of both parents love. The more details that a child knows of what to
anticipate in the transition, the more the child will feel in control of the situation.  Also, remaining
connected and interested in a child’s experiences at the other parent’s home shows acknowledgment
and acceptance of the child’s reality with the other parent.  While talking to the child, Johnston and
Roseby suggest reminding the child that he or she is held lovingly in mind while absent, that the parent
is self-supporting in the child’s absence, and that the parent will welcome the child back on return.  

In addition, a parent’s nonverbal communications can play a significant role in soothing a young child.  
Parents should be aware that hostile or tense physical communications and facial expressions used
during transitions can heighten anxiousness in a young child

Some strategies that encourage communication and help a child to cope with transitions include:

1.        Packing and unpacking transitional objects together;
2.        Drawing pictures with your toddler of his or her space at the other parent’s house;
3.        Using toys to act out the transition with your child;
4.        Telling stories that reassure the child;
5.        Having the same orderly and predictable bedtime rituals at both homes; and
6.        Maintaining a similar sleeping and feeding cycle in both homes.

If parents cannot manage their feelings in the presence of each other, it helps if the transitions are
carried out in the presence of a neutral and benign third party in whose presence both parents are
constrained to behave well or if the transitions occur in a neutral place e.g. day care center, which does
not involve both parents being present. If the transition occurs in a neutral setting, it is very important
that the day care provider be aware of the schedule.





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custody issues.
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