If you’re separated from your partner, follow our expert ten-step plan to make weekends sharing the children stress-free.
After a divorce, it is not unusual for children to spend most of their time with one parent and to visit the other on alternate weekends, perhaps one evening in the week and more often in school holidays. This allows the children to spend quality time with both parents but it does not come without its own challenges. It can sometimes feel to the child and their parent that they are ‘living’ with one parent and a ‘guest’ when they stay at the other parent. It is tempting for the parent to want to lay on a good time for their kids every time they visit and that is not only exhausting, but can lead to complaints from the other parent of ‘spoiling’ the kids.
So how can you spend well the time that you have with your children so that they feel at home in their home with you and look forward to their time with you? We spoke to parenting expert Lesley Rollinson and here are her top ten tips to making time with your children count.
Tip 1 PREPARE
Before your children arrive for the weekend, make sure you are ready for them. Is their bed made and ready? Is the fridge full of the food they will like? Have you left enough time to meet them on time and without stress? Having anyone over to stay for the weekend takes a little preparation so that they arrive and feel welcomed. Just because it is your children coming over and they come over regularly, doesn’t mean the welcome is any less important.
Do you have photos of them in your house? Do you have their paintings on the wall or their prize on the sideboard? Let your home show them how proud you are of them. This can be even more important if you now have a new partner and other children also demanding your attention.
Ask your kids what they need at their home with you to make them feel comfortable. Do they always want the landing light left on, or do they want a special sort of pillow or an extra blanket? Or do they need to bring their favourite teddy or game with them? What is going to help them to feel at home and comfortable? Ask them.
Tip 2 LISTEN
This as the most important tip says Lesley. This means really listening to what your child is saying to you, even if you don’t like what they are saying. Accept what they are telling you and show them you have heard. If you don’t listen, they will stop talking.
Don’t worry if your children do not say much to you to begin with. They will decide when they feel safe to say what they feel. If they don’t feel heard by you, they are unlikely to share much. If they feel what they say makes you feel sad or angry, they may not share much. That’s fine. If you continue to listen, they will talk to you in time.
Sometimes children don’t use words but are still giving you messages about how they are feeling. Their ‘acting out’ is as strong as any words. If you can ‘catch’ the feeling and acknowledge that you have heard it and understand how they are feeling, it makes it easier for them to feel safe to say more. So next time your child is angry or rude when they arrive at your house, pause, don’t get angry or rude back but listen to what they are really trying to tell you. Acknowledge their emotion and accept it.
Lesley recommends reading the wonderful book ‘How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk’ if you want to learn more about listening to your kids. Lesley also works with parents on a one to one basis to help them listen and talk to their kids – contact details are given below.
Tip 3 LET YOUR CHILDREN BE WHO THEY WANT TO BE
Separated parents worry that they may not have as much influence as they would like on their children’s values and beliefs. Sometimes this means that parents focus on this too much when their children are visiting. As a mother of adult children, I have learnt that however hard you try to influence what your child thinks and feels about life, it is how you live your life that children notice most. A child learns what they live. Encourage the behaviours you value by commending them when you see them in your child. Lead by example. And let your child be their best self.
Tip 4 INVOLVE
Children have pretty clear ideas about what they like and what they don’t like. If you listen to them properly and show you have heard, children are also pretty good at discussing and negotiating. So get them involved with choosing how to spend your time together. Give them some options, perhaps set some boundaries, but work out the plan together.
Parents and children alike often comment that downtime is hard when visiting. Parents feel they must entertain their children all weekend and that is exhausting. So have a conversation about it. Ask them: How would you like to spend your downtime here?
Lesley offers an additional top tip around surprises. She points out that often children don’t want surprises when spending time with their mum or dad. Perhaps surprises have not always been good for them in the past and it feels more comfortable to know what is happening and when. This is certainly consistent with comments from parents in mediation who say that their children get anxious when they don’t know when they are going to the other parent or what they will be doing there. So keep children in the picture as much as possible, let them know what is happening.
Tip 5 BE INVOLVED
Whatever the plan, make sure you stay involved. What children love most is attention, your attention, your undivided attention. So make sure that every time you see them, you put some time aside for this. It may be just a few minutes at bedtime or a few minutes kicking a football together or painting a picture together. It is even more important when you have a new partner and new family who also want your attention.
Tip 6 CREATE NEW RITUALS
When I was a child, my Granny always drank her tea out of a cup and saucer. When I went to her house, even when I was quite small, she would give me the same painted china cup and saucer – it was my cup and saucer and made me feel special. This would be what Lesley describes as a ritual – things my Granny and I did together that were special to us. Think of some you can create with your children.
Tip 7 DO THE JOBS THAT NEED DOING
Doing the jobs together is as important as having fun together. It might feel like it is taking up precious time together to spend half an hour on homework or getting the school uniform ready for next week, but it matters and it is a way of showing you care. Your child might not thank you for washing their school uniform or ensuring they understand their maths homework – but it will certainly cause them upset if these things are not done properly.
Be diligent about sending your child back to school or to the other parent with everything they should have with them. Don’t risk upsetting the other parent, because it is your child that will be most hurt. Doing jobs together is real life, it is important.
Tip 8 MAKE HANDOVERS EASY
Handovers are almost always likely to cause fear in children if there has ever been much conflict between their parents. Lesley says: “All children will be on ultra alert, even if they don’t look as though they are.” Handovers can be tough for parents, too. But remember however you feel, the most important thing that you can do for your children is to make handovers smooth, easy and friendly…. even if you don’t feel it inside! Lesley also reminds us NEVER to let your children be the messenger between you.
Tip 9 LAUGH
As Mark Twain said: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” Use humour and laughter all the time.
Tip 10 RELAX – YOU ONLY NEED TO BE A ‘GOOD ENOUGH’ PARENT
If you have enjoyed these top tips, Lesley has contributed to and recommends the book, ‘The Parenting Puzzle: your guide to transforming family life’.
Please share this blog post with anyone you think might find it useful.
More about Lesley
Lesley Rollinson is a parenting practitioner, teacher, counsellor, trainer and supervisor of parenting workers. Her experience includes work within the Primary Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (PCAMHS, now CAMHS Getting Help). This has involved direct work with children aged from 4 to 18, their parents and families, covering conditions such as ASD, anxiety, behavioural or attachment problems. She also has key experience in advising parents of anxious children.
Lesley has also worked therapeutically and taught at the Mulberry Bush School in Standlake, West Oxfordshire. She has been an outreach worker for a Family Centre, a Parentline volunteer and trainer, and a HomeStart volunteer. Lesley has worked for over eight years as a parenting group co-facilitator of Webster-Stratton, Family Links (Bavolek), ParentTalk/Take 3 and Strengthening Families programmes and has as also been a trainer and supervisor of parenting workers.
Lesley works directly with children and parents who are going through separation and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.