Managing handovers mindfully – what can help to ease the process for children if they are struggling?

Sometimes handovers work well, and sometimes they’re more of a struggle.  When they’re a struggle, what can you consider trying to help improve the experience for your child or children?

The grief of a handover and repeated cycle of feelings of loss for the parent your child is leaving can be debilitating for them, even if they don’t show it or express it in ways that make their actual feelings clear.  Handovers can generate a plethora of mixed emotions, both in the build up to, through the handover itself and thereafter. The types of thought processes involved for children can include the following:

  • Sadness to leave the parent with whom they have been spending time
  • Excitement and anticipation to see the parent to whom they are going
  • A sense of responsibility for the welfare and happiness of the parent they’re leaving behind, even if that parent is behaving entirely appropriately
  • Reluctance to leave the comfort of the routine they are currently in, for example relaxing on a a Sunday afternoon and wishing just to stay put
  • Concern about tension in any handover, even if that is only non-verbal and in the form of an inevitable tension
  • Concern about saying the wrong thing, expressing feelings of enjoyment or talking about their time with the other parent if they know that is a bit tricky for their other parent to hear.  Once again, it may not be that the parent to whom they are transferring is making them feel like this, but that they misunderstand or feel as though they may hurt their feelings
  • Feelings of loss and grief associated with leaving the parent with whom they have been spending time
  • Stress about belongings being transferred and everything being ready for the few days ahead
  • And much more besides….

If a child is finding transitions difficult, it is helpful to put yourself in their shoes. What must the experience be like for them and how could you each help it to improve?  Transitions, of course, involve the build-up to, the handover itself and the period thereafter.  There are three phases that parents can look at and perhaps adapt to help a child who is showing signs of finding things difficult.  Some helpful things to consider include:

  • Try to consider each child’s needs individually, as well as any sibling group together. Each child will be responding differently to the challenges of handovers, some finding it very straightforward, others externalising concerns and internalising worries relating to handovers. Giving children space to process their emotions, as well as warm and patient support can help ease the process. 
  • How are you feeling about the handover? If you know you are going to miss the children, try to organise things that will help you fill the time positively. This can help you reflect more positivity to the children.  No one is denying that this is easy, particularly in the early days, but if you know you are struggling and it is not because of welfare issues relating to the care of your child by the other parent, seek the right help and support from friends, family or a professional so that you are able to move towards modelling more positive behaviour to help your children with their transitions. 
  • It can help to keep a routine and structure in place in relation to handovers, which gives children a sense of safety and reassurance.  For example, always coming home to a familiar cuddle and story or walk with the family pet – something to just give children a little space and quiet time while they adjust.
  • Try to keep farewells brief.  Children can become distressed if a handover is drawn out and it is up to the adults to support them appropriately. If they left behind parent is left worrying because a child appears upset, a quick text reassuring them can go a long way in terms of cooperating for children. 
  • settled Be prepared to be flexible. If something isn’t working, it doesn’t necessarily mean the child isn’t enjoying their time with their other parent – it might mean the routine doesn’t suit them. Try to make different arrangements to see if they can help a child feel more. 
  • It’s sometimes feels like there’s a distinction, but generally we don’t tell children that they can skip school, the dentist or lunch with a grandparent if they just don’t feel like it or it feel like and uphill struggle.  Sometimes, even when children love both parents very much, they find the transition a bit of an uphill struggle or even, in the moment when they need to pack, a bit of a hassle!  But seeing both parents regularly and consistently is important and treating our approach to spending time with the other parent with the same mindset as these other things can help.  Earlier this year, 70 experts in attachment theory published a paper to help guide the family court in relation to children and attachment.  In the paper, there’s a lot of information the experts agree the court can rely on, but they are good enough to acknowledge that much of it is not yet known with certainty.  What the experts appear to agree on is that if children receive ‘good enough’ parenting, then maintaining their attachments not only with parents, but also with broader family and attachments networks is an important protective factor for children when parents separate.   
  • If there is some resistance to handovers that you cannot overcome together, act proactively and seek professional assistance before the problem becomes too ingrained. Sometimes, the process itself, miscommunications or misunderstandings can be addressed quickly by a trained professional who is understandably able to be more objective and impartial than we are able to be as parents when we are in the midst of such family transitions. Having a supported and guiding hand to help improve outcomes at an early stage can make all the difference in the longer term.
  • Try reflecting carefully about your own role in the handover – how do you behave both outwardly in terms of verbal and non-verbal communications or actions and notice what you are thinking.  What experience are you having, and what about your child or children?  What two or three things could you change to make some small adjustments?  Small changes can have a significant effect over a period of time.

See our other blogs, our page for parents and our inter-parental conflict page for other helpful resources.