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Child-Centered Transitions

Transitions represent a changing of the guard, a letting go of one parent’s hand while reaching to take the other parent’s hand.
(4 minutes 10 seconds read time)

Karen Bonnell
Karen is a coach that has over 25 years of experience working with individuals, couples, and families facing transition, loss, stress, and change.

Transitions represent a changing of the guard – a  letting go of one parent’s hand while reaching to take the other parent’s hand.

How you and your coParent manage transitions punctuates your kiddo’s lives. Are they filled with question marks (uncertainty?); exclamation points (anger/hostility/ conflict!); empty space (where they make the transition alone) or a bridge where the movement from one home or parent to the other is smooth, integrated and without concern? Parents are in charge of this experience; we sustain the calm, even steps through transition.

    • Ensure respectful (on the part of the adults) transitions.
    • Some parents utilize “natural” transition spots that don’t require contact with each other, such as school/activity pick-up/drop-off. This way, the children experience letting go of one parent into a familiar environment like school or daycare and meeting the other parent at the other end of their day. For parents who are having difficulty seeing one another, this is a useful way to minimize upset until more healing occurs and contact is less painful.
    • Others meet in a neutral location for a quick transfer and hand-off of children’s belonging. For the parent who prefers that their coParent not come to his/her home, this works well. Examples include grocery store parking lot, park, neighborhood coffee shop or a similar neutral, familiar place. When children are having particular difficulties leaving the “family home” to be with their other parent, this transition plan often assists the children with letting go of home first and parent second.
    • Similarly, when children are having difficulty leaving home in either direction, having the current residential parent help children pack up, get into his/her car and drive to the receiving parent’s home can ease the sense of disruption, of being taken away by the receiving parent.
    • For some particularly difficult or conflictual coParenting relationships, parents employ a third party to assist with transitions. One parent drops off to a third party and the other picks up from the third party. Given a choice between allowing someone to assist your children through the transition or having your children experience arguments or violent emotions between parents — the former is definitely preferable until both parents are capable of a more calm, respectful, neutral transition.
    • Do what works — respectfully and as calmly as possible.
    • Transitions can be a time of cordiality and brief sharing. A quick positive story, a brief reminder to the kiddo to tell dad about the spelling test (that you aced!), or positive wishes for a good weekend and fun with Grandma is appropriate. Lingering, long conversations, multiple hugs beyond typical, or any negative exchanges, are confusing and not helpful to kids. If you have a difficult report from school to share, WAIT. Email or call later.
    • Sometimes children want one parent to enter the other parent’s home to see something important during a transition. Be a respectful guest. Always get prior permission from your coParent. Asking in front of your child is a set-up and not nearly as respectful as encouraging your child to wait with reassurance that you’ll “talk with mom/dad about this first,” before making plans to enter your coParent’s home.

Resisting Transitions

  • If a child resists the transition from one parent to another, parents should work together to reassure him/her and/or address legitimate issues, rather than allow the child to refuse to spend time with that parent. Encourage your children to enjoy times in both homes. Children will have complaints — they may from time to time test your conviction that having a strong, engaged relationship with their other parent is important. A child may be having a struggle with his/her other parent and hopes that you’ll take sides, solve his/her problems, and/or provide an escape hatch from taking responsibility for his/her behavior. A young child may simply be expressing the pain of separating — today from you, tomorrow from his/her other parent.
  • Discern the nature of the complaint and seriousness of his/her reluctance. Helping children develop self-advocacy skills, supporting them in approaching another adult (even their other parent) to solve problems, stepping in to advocate for them are familiar skills. You’ve faced similar concerns when your child comes home from school with complaints about a teacher. Your first inclination is not to agree that he/she doesn’t have to return to school! There are many steps that begin with discerning the seriousness of the problem and developing a plan for conflict resolution.
  • Refusing time or rejecting a relationship with a parent is too heavy a burden for a child to carry. Parents need to maintain responsibility for big decisions, and only if there are clear, serious safety issues should a parent step in and do whatever is necessary to protect the child through restricting time or supporting a child in refusing time. Even then, the goal is to eliminate the risk, solve the problems, and resolve the conflict to facilitate a child’s unrestricted relationship — love, caring, and the opportunity to work out issues — with both parents.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Karen Bonnell’s book, THE CO-PARENTS’ HANDBOOK.  For more information on Karen or her book, visit