Divorce is never an easy thing for anyone involved, particularly the kids. But the best-case scenario is one in which both exes put their children first, doing everything they can to stay civil and keep the lines of communication open. Often, this involves finding ways to connect with the children when they're with the ex. Often, it's a delicate balance between loving and hovering.
"When kids are able to have frequent contact between households, they do better," advises Christina McGhee, MSW, a divorce coach and author of Parenting Apart: How Separated and Divorced Parents Can Raise Happy and Secure Kids. "Emerging research shows that it's the ability to have warm and close contact with both parents, even if the parents aren't close, that benefits children. It's a reassurance for kids to know they're still important to Mom and Dad."
The key to staying in touch with children during the times they stay with the other parent, says McGhee, is to be flexible. "Life wasn't scheduled and structured when you were together," she tells Romper. "That's part of being a family, and it doesn't change when you split up."
Whether you prefer to touch base with your kids in a high- or low-tech fashion, it's crucial to do it with respect and good judgment. "You need to keep it appropriate on both ends," says McGhee. "We go back to the golden rule: Would you want the ex to do the same thing with you that you are with them? Are you role-modeling that kind of responsibility?"
When you're making a communication plan, do it as a family, advised Very Well Family, and keep the kids' feelings in mind. For example, during overnight visits, it may be best not to call if it only triggers homesickness.
McGhee, who also runs the Divorce and Children website, cites two additional rules for successful connection: Don't spend your time asking your kids about the other parent ("Kids shouldn't feel like spies, and they don't want to be grilled"), and don't dwell on the separation. "Parents say, 'I miss you, I can't wait till you get back' with the best of intentions, but sometimes that backfires," she explains. "A lot of kids pick up on that and think they have to be the emotionally responsive ones. Do everything you can to be supportive, and let them know you're going to be okay."
Here are some of the best ways to keep in contact with your kids when they're with your ex, whether it's for a day or a month.
1. Schedule A Call
Sometimes the most obvious suggestions are still the best. Planning a call at an agreed-upon time is an easy way to connect with your child and let them know you're thinking of them. But do set limits on yourself, advised Emma Johnson, author of two books on single parenting and founder of the website Wealthy Single Mommy. "Missing and longing are a healthy part of life," she wrote on her site. "If we deny our kids that, we rob them of the ability to learn patience, memory... , story telling and the satisfaction of seeing someone after missing them." If the separation is just for a few days, then a couple of calls should be plenty.
2. Have A Video Chat
"We're in a golden age of technology, and I would say video chats are one of the best ways to stay in touch," says McGhee. "They're especially great for younger kids; it's more tangible, and tangible things are good for this age group." Skype, YourTango, FaceTime — whichever app you prefer, make sure both you and your children (or your ex) have access.
3. Record A Book
If a bedtime story is one of your favorite nighttime routines with your children, you can keep the tradition going when they're at your ex's by investing in a recordable storybook (like these, from Hallmark). This way, your kids can listen to your voice not only at bedtime, but anytime they need a little dose of Mom.
"For tweens and teens, meet them where they're at," recommends McGhee — and that inevitably involves sending those quick back-and-forth phone messages. You may need to brush up on the current abbreviations (srsly), but it's worth it to keep the conversation going. Just keep it within a reasonable limit. Checking in a couple of times a day for a few minutes is fine; a constant stream of texts all weekend long is helicopter-y in the extreme.
5. Send A Care Package
For longer-term situations, such as a spring-break week or a month during the summer, you can go a step further and mail out a little box of goodies. "If your kids are going to be away for an extended period, you can absolutely send a package — who doesn't like to get a package?" says McGhee. Keep it simple and light-hearted: a book or two, a letter, a photo of your pet, a small toy. Avoid extravagant gifts or treats that you know aren't allowed in your ex's home.
6. Make A Calendar
"Communication extends not only when children are with the other parent, but also when they're in their own home," says McGhee. Divorce magazine recommended keeping a calendar in both parents' homes, color-coded to indicate clearly which days the kids will spend with each parent. This eliminates any confusion, especially for younger children, and lets them see at a glance where they'll be on special occasions, such as their birthday or Christmas.