In anticipation of her four teenage stepdaughters coming to her home for the summer, Cheryl asked for some advice. “I am dreading the six-week visitation,” she said. “The last two summers have been an emotional roller coaster.”
Spending a number of weeks at a nonresidential parent’s home during the summer is common for many stepfamily children. Managing the transition and emotional challenges is an important part of parenting.
Residential and nonresidential parents and stepparents alike find the summer visitation switch somewhat troublesome. Children, of course, deal with many transitional issues as well. For example, while children of every age feel some excitement about spending extra time with a nonresidential parent, they also feel sad for leaving a parent or siblings behind. Saying hello to someone always means saying goodbye to someone else.
Children and teens may also feel frustrated and out of control over how the schedule impacts their personal life and friendships. In addition, the summer transition may heighten the loyalty pinch children feel between parents. Wise parents maintain sensitivity to these common pressures and seek to minimize them for the sake of their child’s well-being.
Despite mixed emotions about summer visitation, children and adults experience many rewards as well. Nonresidential parents are able to reconnect with their children over an extended period of time, while nonresidential stepparents have an opportunity to build stronger relationships with stepchildren they may not see very often. And residential parents may experience a much-needed break from the daily demands of parenting and find refreshment for the child’s return.
The following visitation guidelines will help you maximize the rewards in your summer schedule while minimizing the stressors. Be sure to read both lists to gain perspective about the challenges faced by your child’s other home.
Guidelines for receiving the kids for a long visit
1. Resist the temptation to “compete” with the other home while you have the children. Summertime “Disneyland Dads” and “Magic Mountain Moms” repeatedly buy the children gifts and take them on extravagant vacations in an effort to win their affections. Engaging in fun activities or vacation is certainly appropriate when balanced with a typical family schedule. Time is what your children need from you, not stuff.
2. Depending on how long you have been married and the amount of visitation time throughout the year, stepparents like Cheryl may feel that they are “starting over” with their stepchildren. Relationships do take “two steps backward” when physical distance and little time together prevents frequent contact. This can be very frustrating for stepparents. Take a deep breath and again connect with stepchildren through interests you have in common. Listen to their pace and match it. If they hunger for time with you, give it. If they keep their distance, find simple ways of connecting, but don’t force affections or you may embolden resistance. Hopefully, over the six weeks your relationship will improve.
3. Initially, the biological parent should spend a lot of time with their children. Children usually come thirsty for this focused time; withholding it can amplify jealousy. Stepparents would do well to gift this time without resentment. Try to balance the need of stepsiblings to spend time together with the biological parent’s time with their children. After a couple of weeks the entire family can settle into the expectation that everyone will be included in activities.
4. Never make children feel guilty for having strong affections to those in the other home. Listen to their stories and celebrate their joys. A heart of grace for the affections of children is usually a later recipient of grace as well.
5. In your pre-summer schedule planning, agree with adults in the other home to get the “other side of the story” from them if the children complain or share negative comments. There is always another side to consider. Giving the adults in the other home the benefit of the doubt before choosing judgment prevents needless hostility and child between-home manipulation.
Guidelines for sending the kids off for a long visit
1. Plan a pre-summer conference call with the other home to negotiate calendar and travel details. You can also communicate information to the other home to help them ease the transition for the children. For example, you might share new preferences and interests of the children so the other parent can plan their activities.
Also, find out from the other home what special events they may have planned so you can inform your children and pack them accordingly. For example, they may need swimwear or hiking shoes for a vacation in the mountains.
Finally, this meeting is a good time to agree to get the “other side of the story” should the children call to complain about their time in the other home.
2. Wish your children well. Giving permission to enjoy their time in the other home reduces loyalty conflicts and offers a much needed blessing that settles guilt feelings and fears. It also reminds your heart that their departure is not about you.
3. Manage your grief over their absence; don’t lay it on your children’s shoulders. Feeling sad as the children depart is normal and expected. Openly displaying your grief about missing them adds a burden of anxiety to children. They can easily worry about your well-being while away, causing them confusion and guilt about enjoying their time in the other home. Share your tears and concerns with a spouse or friend, not the children.
4. Periodically stay in touch with your children. Today’s plethora of communication options easily allows you to stay connected with text messages, cell phones, email, and posting comments to their Facebook account. Take precaution not to intrude on the other home’s time or activities with excessive contact.
5. Manage your guilt. Some parents feel remorse for not being with the children, or for how the children feel while in the other home, or perhaps for how they are being treated by a family member. Don’t let your guilt feelings lead you to overreact or become controlling of the other home.
6. Stepparents may experience a range of emotions from sadness to relief. Missing the children is understandable. Pray for them while gone and look forward to their return. At the same time, should you feel relief don’t feel guilty for “enjoying a break” from stepparenting. Take advantage of the time to refresh and prepare yourself for the children’s return.
7. If all the children are gone during the summer switch, take advantage of the time to invest in your marriage. Reconnect and spend some quality time together.
8. If, after the switch, you still have some children in your home, do something special with them. Don’t reserve all your “fun” summer time only for when all the children are present. Also, this may be a good time for parents to build memories with an “ours” child.
An extended summertime visitation is a necessity of divided families. You can emotionally resist its reality, but you cannot prevent it.
Whether you are sending or receiving the children, try to think of the time as a fun, special opportunity—a “sleepover” instead of a change of residence. That attitude will trickle down to the child’s experience, bringing blessing to everyone.