Managing kids’ behaviour when they come home from dad’s house

home from dad's house

Hi, I'm Ariella. I am a highly qualified paediatric nurse and the Director of Kids on Track Consultancy. I provide strategies for families around parenting, behaviour and sleep, toilet training, and everything in between. Following my work with separated families, here is my expert advice on calmly, practically and successfully managing kids behaviour when they come home from dad's house.

Moving between homes regularly would be unsettling for even the most well-adjusted adults. Children who need routine, stability and a sense of safety above all else. Frequently moving across two homes is usually daunting and overwhelming, even when they don't express it. Is it any wonder that child acts up after visiting dad?

Children worry about forgetting things in the move, needing access to all their possessions when they need or want them and having limited exposure to their other parent if something occurs.

This reality needs to be validated and acknowledged for all children who live across two homes.

The key is to show tremendous empathy, forward planning and insight to minimise the disruption felt by your child/ren. You must also create a smoother transition between homes, irrespective of how often the move occurs or how long the stay will be.

Animosity between exes will play a part in the child's experience of the transition from one home to the next. Always remember that every family dynamic is different, and each co-parenting case is different.

However, there are some simple yet effective ways to help kids of all ages and stages ensure a smoother transition as they move from one home to another, regardless of the specific circumstances at play.

Using both my experience in child behaviour and my experience working with separated families, here is my advice to successfully manage your child's behaviour when they come home from dad's house.

Further reading: How to deal with single mum separation anxiety.

Show empathy and validation for how your child feels

Many parents have concerns about the change in temperament they see in their children upon return from a visit to their ex. While this can be difficult to parent through and manage, it is essential to understand where these emotions are coming from.

They often come from a genuine desire that things were different. There's a feeling of being displaced or unsettled and a sadness that their time with their dad has finished. (This can often be the case when dad is the parent they spend less time with).

No matter your feelings towards your ex, empathy for your child or children is vital in helping them settle in from one home to the next. Understanding that this transition is challenging will help you allow your children some grace as they adjust to your home again.

Children may act out upon coming home from Dad’s. They might:

  • Test your boundaries
  • Intentionally break house rules
  • Use language or actions that they know will provoke you

This is all a part of a child seeking safety and wanting reassurance from you, their parent. They want to feel safe despite the upheaval they feel from moving from one home where they have felt settled to a new environment again.

Allow your child/ren the chance to talk to you about their feelings and ensure they know it is okay to tell you they are feeling sad/anxious/regretful, etc. Make it clear that you know they aren’t feeling the best when you see these behaviours.

In addition, children may express through their words or behaviour that they miss their other parent. Validating your child’s feelings and reassuring them that they will see their other parent in a few days, or via Facetime or phone in the meantime, will help your child feel less abandoned and reassured that both parents still love and care for them.

Stay calm to manage behavioural issues after visitation

Changes in children's behaviour before and after parent visits may be normal, but that doesn't mean your frustration is invalid. However, it's crucial to remember that you are the adult in this situation.

It's already tricky for children to understand their feelings, let alone regulate them. As an adult, it is your responsibility to manage your emotions to keep things under control. You must recognise your tendencies to act or react in different situations. This way, you know what to do when the inevitable happens.

Even if you're angry at your child/ren's sudden rebellious streak, stay calm and try to get to the bottom of things. Perhaps they are missing their dad. Maybe they are frustrated about your family set-up. It can also be something worse like your ex directly influencing your child to feel that way towards you.

What's important is you understand your kids are not acting out just because they want to make you feel bad. There's always a deeper reason behind their behaviour. You need to know this so you know how to react.

Sometimes, they act out because they sense your negativity. Children are known to be perfect mirrors of their parents. They reflect your exact emotions. Your kids know if you are cross with their dad, even if you don't show it. So, it's particularly important that you stay calm and minimise negative emotions if your child acts up after visiting dad.

Communication with the parent they have just left

One of the issues that is a common cause for concern for children of all ages is how much and when they will be able to connect with and be involved with the parent they have just left.

Some children get used to and are happy to work around the custody arrangement. Others want more. This can lead to foul moods, resentment and even tears when they return to their primary home.

For older children who have devices, navigate this with behaviour agreements around how much phone time they can have. One way to do that is to monitor how much time is spent on the phone to dad.

For younger ones, it can be helpful to set up an additional time between visits so that they can speak to them. One idea could be for dad to read a five-minute bedtime story over the phone to your child when they are staying with you.

Of course, putting a time limit on this conversation with their Dad may be necessary. This is especially if they expect you to set up the phone call and this would cause you animosity or resentment. If this is the case, it could be worth considering if someone else can supervise that time. This way, your child receives the connection they are missing.

Whatever you decide, from open communication to no contact at all, it is essential that your child understands your arrangement. Explain to your child in practical terms what, when and how they can expect to speak to their Dad. So, you give your child a sense of control over their own situation. This can help them feel secure and connected to both parents no matter whose house they are living in.

Other ways to promote this connection can be to allow pictures of Dad by your child’s bed. You can also allow them to invite Dad to school events etc even if they don’t usually chat when at your home.

Further reading: How to communicate with an ex you can't stand.

Involve your child in the problem solving

Mothers know best, of course we do! But when it comes to dealing with changes in children's behaviour before and after parent visits, it's an excellent idea to involve your child in how you can get through as a family.

Things you can ask from your child include:

  • A solution, or what they think both of you should do to solve the conflict
  • A reasonable timeframe, or how long it will take for things for them to calm down
  • Alternative solutions, or what you both will do when the first solution fails

Your child will feel heard and respected because you're not resorting to simply telling them to stop. Talking to them and adjusting your responses based on what they say, will help your child feel empowered and in control. They will know you are willing to listen, and they are more likely to open up to you.

Aside from having a solution to your present problem, you also get to teach your kids an essential life skill. It's a win-win. They learn to manage their emotions, think creatively, and help them realise their abilities. Problem-solving allows them to adapt better to real-life problems when they grow up. These are just some benefits of involving them in solving conflicts.

Create rituals around transition

One way to help children understand that it's time to move from one home to the next is to create consistent rituals. Routine allows children to learn through repetition that they can rely on consistent 'signals' to mark the move. This help them adjust to the other parent's home.

Try finding a simple ritual you can commit to and follow each time you pick your child up from their father's house. This would need to be something out of the ordinary. Choose a routine that only happens at the point of pick up from their other parent's house. It could be:

  • Picking up takeaway dinner on the way home
  • Going through a drive-through for a treat
  • Or listening to a particular song in the car together

This consistent action on the way back from Dad's house will help to mark the transition for your child. It gives them closure as one home experience ends and another one begins.

A second way to mark and assist your child's transition between homes is to allow them downtime. For the first 30-45 minutes upon returning, allow them to be in their own space with an activity of their choice. Don't expect them to jump back into the fast-paced life we all live!

Set aside a time and space where you don't bombard them with questions, conversations, or activities. It can help them process the transition and think through their time at their other parent's home. It is much like processing through their school day before talking.

Further reading: 8 Reasons why a good routine can change your life.

Make a point of having family time

Following some down time, the sooner that you can do something as a family together, the better.

This activity should include the whole family unit as it looks at your home (including pets)! The aim is to re-cement the bond and feelings of belonging associated with your home.

Some ideas are:

  • Having a meal together which your child helps to prepare
  • Having a reading session where everyone gets to choose a book (for younger children)
  • Playing a game that everyone enjoys
  • Having a movie night on the couch.

Another idea is to also ensure that on that first night, each of your children who has just returned home, spends some one-on-one time with you. This time can be doing what is already in the routine such as having a bath, or bedtime stories. Or, can be more of a ritual/treat i.e. coming to the shops with you as a special outing.

These acts of togetherness will likely help your child to feel safe, assured and settled in their new home environment more quickly.

Make sure the practicalities run smoothly

For many shared parenting families, the first few months of changeovers are complete chaos.

There are bags of belongings everywhere, confusion over what to bring and what to leave, and high-conflict emotions bouncing off the walls.

It is no wonder kids struggle and play up when you finally get them in the car and start driving. Not only are they sad to be leaving their dad. Forgetting something and the possible consequences of not having an item they need worry them.

The level of organisation by which changeover is executed directly correlate with your kids moods when you get them home.

Some ways to make the changeover run smoothly when you collect them from dads are:

  • Make a list and share it with their dad so he can ensure everything is packed
  • Encourage their dad to have everything ready when you arrive. This way, there is no last minute panic or confusion (which may lead to conflict).
  • Suggest that he contacts you before the changeover if he has questions about what to pack. This way, you can have everything organised in advance .
  • If not already being used, provide their dad with suitable bags or containers to move your kids stuff between homes

Further reading: 7 Superb ideas for moving kids stuff during handover.

Make-up visual schedules and calendars

Depending on the age of your child/ren, it can be hard for them to grasp when they are supposed to be with which parent and for how long. It is also something that parents with split custody arrangements work hard to keep track of as well.

Therefore, it is helpful for children to have a way to reference and know with certainty when they will be moving next. This helps them feel more relaxed and alleviates anxiety about what is coming next.

A visual schedule on the wall shows clearly which days the child will be with Mum and which days with Dad. It can be very helpful in easing anxiety about the unknown.

Explaining to children what days they will be with who, who will be collecting them from school, when and who will be attending different school or life events, can help children feel more in control of their lives.

Reach for professional help if you need it

Of course, not everything can be solved at home. There are times when the problem is more than you can handle and "keeping it in the family" will do more harm than good.

When you feel no longer confident that you can solve your child's behavioural issues, you may need to seek professional help. This can be a child behavioural therapist trained to help kids become less impulsive and defiant. You can also enrol yourself (and possibly your ex?) in parenting training to manage your child's behaviour.

You and your child may also benefit from family mediation. This is not therapy. It is a short-term approach that allows parents and their children to discuss their conflicts before a third-party mediator. You can even do child-inclusive mediation which allows your child to be heard and a more child-focussed solution to be reached.

In extreme cases, you might need to take things to court. If you feel like your current parenting arrangement is harming your child emotionally and mentally, you can ask for legal support in changing parenting orders.

You might also need to take your child to the GP if the arrangement is causing negative impacts to their health which you are unable to fix yourself.

To cut things short, feel free to seek professional help when you need it. You're not failing as a parent if you can't solve problems on your own. Having a supportive village to raise your child will make parenting an easier job, especially for a single mum like you.

Conclusion: Managing kids’ behaviour when they come home from dad’s house

All the suggestions I have made in this article have been tried and tested with shared parenting families I have worked with where a child acts up after visiting dad. While some are surefire solutions, others work well for some families and not for other.

Remember, every child, every parent and every situation is different. This means the dynamics of your own situation are unique. Often, the only way to know what will work is by trying different strategies and fine-tuning them

By creating some of these rituals, children begin to feel a better sense of consistency when they move between homes, this is key to alleviating feelings of worry and being unsettled.

Knowing that you are approachable, open and understanding to their relationship with their father will also help minimise their feelings of guilt at having had a nice time and not wanting to talk to you about it in case it makes you sad!

But no matter what, if during the transition period, your child feels consistently loved, advocated for and supported by both parents, the turbulence that can be caused for everyone with the regular moves can be reduced.

I hope these suggestions will help to minimise the stress in your family when your child comes home from dad's house.

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Ariella Lew

About the author

Ariella Lew is a highly qualified paediatric nurse and Director of Kids on Track Consultancy. Ariella consults both locally and overseas. She is an expert on topics including parenting, behaviour and sleep and toilet training as well as providing strategies for families of children with special needs.

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