For separated parents, the thought of exchanging the children can plague them with anxiety from the moment they wake up on Exchange Day.
Will he be on time? Did he remember the medicine? I hope he sends them back with clean clothes! I’ll miss them so much…
Exchange Time is a necessary stressor that affects parents and children alike. The following list of Do's and Don’ts might help ease some of the tension for everyone in your family.
Don’t set your ex up for failure with the kids. This includes “forgetting” to inform him of their important events, denigrating him in front of the kids and a host of other dirty divorce tactics. Your co-parent is your parenting teammate. When he fails, your team fails.
Don’t send messages via the children, especially negative ones. The kids’ primary concern at Exchange Time should be seeing their parent, not taking care of your grownup business. Let them be children while you handle any adult communication issues, as unpleasant as they may be.
Don’t tell your children how lonely you’ll be without them. Exchanges are stressful enough without planting subconscious seeds, which will cause your children to worry about you while they’re away.
Don’t withhold the kids from their dad. Unless your children’s father presents a serious safety risk, he should be provided his share of parenting time. Children have a right to a relationship with each parent, and the fallout of your romantic partnership need not taint that relationship.
Some of these might be hard, I understand. And feel free to fantasize all you want, but any route other than the High Road will most likely lead to a lot more stress for everyone involved. Now for the Do List…
Drop them off (as opposed to picking them up). The exchange is never off to a good start when one parent shows up at a bad time, interrupting a special moment between the kids and their other parent. You can eliminate this risk by each of you delivering your children to the other home. Travel time between homes provides an opportunity for everyone to ease into the transition. You might want to start a special ritual for your drive time. Perhaps you could listen to a certain song or play a game typically reserved for road trips.
Agree on a timeframe, not a specific time. It’s easier to execute a dropoff when working within a window of time rather than a specific hour/minute combo. The flexibility makes for a little easier transition on both sides. For instance, you won’t be forced to make the kids quit their video game in the middle of a climactic battle in order to depart at precisely the right time. And you won’t be forced to assume the worst if your ex doesn't arrive on the hour.
Have a nice chat (if you and your ex are friendly). A couple years after their initial separation, my parents became friends. Some of my most potent post-divorce childhood memories are the ones of my parents talking on the front porch before my sister and I spent the weekend with my dad. It was Family Time, revised. Not only was it nice to see my parents happily having a conversation, the social time made for an easier transition from one parent to the other.
Exchange a folder and/or notebook (if you’re not friendly). If verbal communication with your ex often erupts into a shouting match, it’s best to limit your interaction to unspoken forms of communication, especially in front of your children. Send doctor bills, report cards, school photos, etc in a folder and write notes in a journal to keep each other up-to-date on important information. Hand this off between the two of you with a smile and a “thank you.”
Put on a happy face. You might not feel like smiling, and that’s OK. But you really should smile. Smiling fools your brain into thinking you’re actually happy, thus putting you in a better mood. Smiling also gives your children permission to enjoy their time with their other parent. And sporting a smile makes it harder for your ex to view you as a nasty villain.
Of course, everyone’s family dynamics are a little different, and you might need to experiment to find the routine that works best for you. As time goes by, Exchange Time usually gets easier. Have faith, and keep smiling.