Summer is often the time families move. Sometimes the new home is just across town. Other times, families move to another city or state.
But for children whose parents are in the process of divorcing or have already divorced, relocating can add burdens far beyond saying goodbye to friends and classmates. They may also be leaving a parent.
Brooke French, an attorney at the family law firm Boyd Collar Nolen & Tuggle in Atlanta (her practice focuses on all aspects of domestic relations litigation, including divorce and child custody) says although it may not always be comfortable to sit down with an ex-spouse or partner, communicating the move, especially to a very young child, is done best jointly between both parents as a family.
Navigating a big move that separates a child from a parent, she said, can be made easier by doing the following: clearly communicating the move to kids and crafting a revised parenting agreement that accounts for the subsequent shifts in parenting time.
French offers the following guide of tips and advice for helping kids cope with post-divorce relocation:
To assuage a child’s concerns and fears:
· Be prepared to answer your child’s questions regarding how the move will impact him or her.
· Have the details of the move worked out prior to the conversation so that both parents can answer specific questions.
· Understand that children often process change differently than adults, and may become emotional or angry about moving away not only from the other parent, but also home, friends, school and activities.
Relocation to another community can be an especially difficult transition for all concerned if the other parent had previously shared responsibility for parenting duties, such as carpool, doctor’s appointments, school projects and involvement with sports, dance or music lessons.
Parents are wise to first consider the impact this relocation will have on the child. While close proximity is always ideal for two-household families—affording both parents and children the chance to be there for the big and little events, ceremonies and special occasions—financial, career and other factors can disrupt the original plan. If the change is unavoidable, recognize that one parent may need to sacrifice holiday and break time to ensure the child has adequate time with the other parent.
Timing considerations for structuring a revised parenting plan include:
· Age of the child and his or her acceptance of long periods away from one parent. There’s no bright line test, but, generally, children who are preschool age and younger should not be away from their primary caregiver for long periods of time. This is especially difficult for a 1- or 2-year-old to understand. At this age, they are still establishing bonds with the primary caregiver, so—except in rare situations where both parents previously acted as primary caregiver and the child was equally bonded—anything more than a week is probably too long. By school age, children should acclimate and be able to handle a longer visit with the other parent.
· Frequency and difficulty of travel. Travel is hard, even for adults. Packing up and travelling to another parent’s house every weekend—even if it is across town—takes a toll on children that parents may not have considered. A lengthy car trip or drive to the airport, flight and a drive from the airport adds considerable strain.
· How a long-lasting trip may affect the child social life and extracurricular activities. Whether in the original town or in the new town, children who must divide their time in different locations are asked to make sacrifices. If there is considerable distance between the two homes, the children may miss birthday parties, soccer games or activities that require multiple weeks of commitment. Children enjoy participating in these activities and may be resentful that they cannot. A child’s emotional growth through his or her social life is an important part of his or her development and should not be overlooked. Additionally, as they grow older, some children express their desire to attend these events rather than visiting with the other parent.
Among the considerations to restore and maintain the parental relationship between the child and the distant parent:
· Involving the other parent in the move. Invite the other parent into the new home, have the other parent visit the child’s new school and town. That will allow the child to connect with the other parent in the new environment and will improve the other parent’s ability to remain connected to the child.
· Using technology to your advantage to maintain communication. For younger kids, technologies that employ visual elements, such as FaceTime, are helpful in developing and maintaining connections, because the child can see the parents’ facial expressions and make a connection with the parent. Adults are cautioned, however, to remember that a young child’s attention span will be limited, regardless of whether they are talking on the phone or video chatting on a tablet. For older kids who understand and can hold a conversation longer, consider multiple technologies, taking into account their preferences. Older children can text the other parent and email the other parent. They can also talk on the telephone and video chat.
· Facilitating ongoing communication. Following relocation, the moving party should assume the burden of informing the other parent of what is happening in the child’s life and making sure child stays in touch with the other parent. Know that most children will not think to report how they’re doing in school or what they may be doing. This may mean scheduling a daily “update” email or phone call for the adults.
· Frequency of communication. Establishing a schedule for how often the child and the other parent should communicate may depend on the relationship they had before the move. If child was used to seeing the other parent two times a week, for example, then aim, at a minimum, for the child and other parent to communicate that often. Again, the moving party should take on that burden, not the child. The frequency of communication may also depend on how the child is handling the relocation as the child may want to speak with the other parent more frequently shortly after the move or during a stressful time. Both parents need to remember that children have varying attention spans and varying interest in talking to parents. Accordingly, some communications may be really brief, while others may be longer.
Relocating with kids is among the thorniest issues family law courts face. Thoughtful planning and communication, putting the child’s needs ahead of all else, will go a long way toward smoothing the transition.
Brooke M. French is of counsel at the family law firm Boyd Collar Nolen & Tuggle (Atlanta), where her practice focuses on all aspects of domestic relations litigation, including divorce, child custody, support modifications, contempt, post-divorce modification and enforcement, family violence, paternity, and legitimation and prenuptial agreements. She has tried both jury and bench trials. She also is trained as a guardian ad litem for both Fulton and Cobb County cases. She can be reached at (770) 953-4300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.