Feeling at home is hard for kids in shared custody

August 08, 1993|By Ro Logrippo

Whether shared custody means dividing the month evenly between parents or splitting the time otherwise, it's not easy to smooth the wrinkles for a child caught in the strands of divorce.

Even in the best of times, a transient's existence for someone young can mean confusion and insecurity. When caused by a family split-up, the stress factor of moving around escalates -- unless there is love, understanding and continuity.

With so many issues like school and activities coming into play, a child's personal space may be overlooked by parents. Considering how much environment influences development, however, parents should pay attention to the surroundings, especially in a home setting where children spend the most time.

What can be done to foster a sense of continuity? How can topsy-turvy feelings be quelled while shifting homes?

Some psychologists and educators believe comforting touches can cushion the experience of being uprooted. How soothing creature comforts are, however, depends on parents' attitude and behavior, which heighten or diminish the anxiety of continual change.

"Kids can adjust to a lot if parents respect each other and there's no conflict between them," says Rosemarie Bolen, who heads Kids' Turn, a San Francisco Bay Area agency aimed at alleviating the anxiety of children in family break-ups.

"When there's coordination and cooperation," Ms. Bolen emphasizes, "kids get better accustomed to different family structures."

A child's clothing is one issue divorced parents would do well to coordinate, Ms. Bolen says. "It's better when kids don't have to drag clothes back and forth; it saves a lot of arguing." Since two wardrobes would be pricey, accomplish this by providing basics such as play clothes, underwear and weather gear at both locations.

L Shuttling other possessions, however, is a different matter.

"There is a comfort to having things nearby that belong to you," says psychologist Joyce Brothers. Objects that comfort children, she feels, may be as basic as a security blanket and bed pillow that are soothing by virtue of familiarity and scent.

"Smell is very close to emotions," she says, "even your own scent." If a child likes a particular scented soap, she adds, it's a good idea to allow it to be used in both homes even if it means taking the same bar back and forth in a travel container.

Transporting things is easy for a child with a backpack. But don't suggest or restrict what those should or shouldn't be.

"Stay out of it," Dr. Brothers advises. "Let a child choose. If it's a gift from you that belongs to the child, be enchanted that they think it's so special they want to take it with them." But it's OK to limit the number of items so that going from one home to another doesn't mean packing the refrigerator and taking it, too.

Be prepared if your child expects the family cat or another pet to share joint custody. "It's a companion you can cuddle," explains psychologist and author Judith Wallerstein of the Center for the Family in Transition. Because it's important that a child's interests be taken seriously, she recommends that parents consult with their young ones about these matters.

"One 8-year-old always talked about his bird. It was his closest ally," she says. "His central concern during the divorce was 'Where would the bird go?' " Another child she recalls made parent-to-parent treks with the same houseplant in tow.

Feeling of security

Distance and the pet or plant in question dictate whether or not they can be transported. If there's doubt about the former, check with a vet before investing in a proper carrying case. "Allowing the child to carry something back and forth is a way to provide a sense of continuity," says Dr. Wallerstein. Having counseled more than 6,000 children of divorce since 1971, she's convinced that objects to which a child is emotionally attached instill a feeling of security that may lessen stress. "Help a child feel at home and comfortable, " she says, "and you won't get as many symptoms [edginess, etc.] that often come with transition."

To ease adjustment to double living situations, involve your child in decisions about their personal quarters in each home. "Children often feel very peripheral," says Dr. Wallerstein. "It's extremely good to involve them in their room."

Adds Dr. Brothers: "If you can, let a child choose color."

Shared quarters

Divorced people often remarry other parents, so unrelated children often become part-time roommates. To prevent the transitional child from feeling like an intruder, experts advise:

* Set aside a shelf, a corner or another area that conveys the notion of private territory that can be left undisturbed.

* Let treasures be stored in a box that locks for privacy.

* Display a child's art work in both locations.

* Pick a place where a mess can be made without disruption.

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