Dealing with Dysregulated Kids After Dad’s Parenting Time

Posted on Jun 17, 2024 by Katie Carter

A common theme in coparenting is how difficult it is for kids and coparents to transition between each parent’s separate parenting time.  This is probably especially true in the early stages of coparenting – though it generally settles down for many families – but, in some cases, visitation exchanges are always disruptive.

Some kids (like some adults!) are more adaptable than others; some situations really involve a lot of tension or wildly different standards in different homes.  The ‘Disney Dad’ or ‘Superdad’ phenomenon is pretty common in custody cases and you might see it in yours.  Basically, dad – wanting all of his parenting time with the kids to be ‘fun’ – doesn’t really parent.  He lets the kids stay up late, play video games or watch TV, eat junk food, and generally doesn’t enforce rules.  It’s all fun, all the time.  Then, when the kids come back to mom’s house and are expected to eat, you know, vegetables, go to bed at a decent hour, do homework, and follow basic rules, it’s a major culture shock.  And, hey, I get it (and you know you do, too): it sounds fun to eat ice cream for dinner.  No rules!

It is fun, but it’s also not a way of life.  Dad knows this.  You know this.  The kids probably, on some level, know this, too, but they’re also going through a period of transition that is confusing – and, anyway, ice cream and video games have a pretty strong pull.

It may not even be that extreme.  Blended family dynamics can be challenging and, if there are other half or step brothers or sisters in one home or the other (or both), it can create some very different family structures.  Don’t forget that, in the case of a blended stepfamily situation, it can involve as many as SIX parents – you and your child’s father, you and your child’s father’s new spouses, and your new spouse’s exes!  It’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen, to say the least.

There can be a ton of tension about each family’s respective lifestyles, especially if someone’s financial fortune improved significantly while the other’s declined.

Anyway, all that to say – it can be a lot for a child, and even a parent, to deal with.  It’s also probably no wonder that juggling between two homes, especially two very different homes, can be confusing and overwhelming for a child.  Even for an older child, it can be confusing and they can become dysregulated.  So, how do you help?

I’m no parenting expert.  Like you, I’m figuring it out day by day, but I think that there are some general guiding principles.

Not all coparenting models are the same!

If you and your child’s father can’t cooperatively coparent – meaning, basically, apply similar rules and standards in each home, communicate, and be generally respectful – you’ll want to look into following a more parallel parenting model where you each parent in your own way on your own parenting time.  Do some research into these different models to help guide you as you figure out how you want to navigate it based on what is most important to you.  There are a lot of books and resources out there, so it’s not like you have to reinvent the wheel.

Talk to your kids about their feelings; give them an outlet to communicate their experiences.

You’ll want to establish your own rules and routines.  Some of these may be the same that existed from before you and your child’s father broke up or separated and/or divorced, but there may also be some new additions, too.  You may even want to institute something like a family meeting to discuss standards and expectations going forward, to check in with your kids, and to make sure everyone’s needs are being met, whether as a one-time, as-needed, or ongoing practice.

You don’t want to talk badly about your child’s father, but you do want to check in with your kids.  Whether you do it yourself or whether you have them speak with a therapist, their pediatrician, or other specialist, address issues as they come up.  Talk to them.  A lot.  Reassure them that the divorce or breakup isn’t their fault, that you’ll love them no matter what, and that – no matter your differences – you and their father will figure it out.

Adjust your expectations.

If visitation exchange is always stressful, adjust where it happens.  Maybe it’s too hard to come face to face, so do most of your pick ups or drop offs around school time – someone drops the kids off at school, and someone else picks them up.

Worried about an altercation?  Do the exchange at a police station or well-lit public place, like a fast food restaurant or gas station.

Have a routine for exchange days that make it something to look forward to, relaxing in some way, or that takes the burden off of you (or them) to transition seamlessly back into their routine.  Maybe you go out to dinner.  Maybe you go for a walk or to a favorite park or place.  Maybe you shake it up and do something entirely new.  The focus should be on building your connection with the kids and giving yourselves a chance to reconnect after time apart, not on spending money or doing something elaborate each time.

Prepare for it ahead of time.  Maybe doing something is too much.  Maybe they need to come home, spend time in their room or with family pets, and go to bed early.  You know your kids best and, with time, you’ll be able to prepare best for how to meet these challenges.  Just pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, and adjust and readjust your expectations to fit.

Communicate – if you can – with your ex.

Ideally, you and your ex would maintain an open line of communication.  You could talk about how the kids are doing and, even if he does things differently than you or doesn’t meet your standards, you can express concerns about specific behaviors or issues.

If he’s abusive, high conflict, narcissistic, or otherwise obnoxious, it may be easier to communicate indirectly, like via a coparenting app, rather than allowing open communication via text, phone calls, or emails – which can lead to harassment or abuse.  On a coparenting app, you can share information – calendars for school, sports, and personal events (like vacations, weddings, graduations, etc), party invitations, school picture and report card information – back and forth.  That way, you both have all the information you need, and there’s no room for allegations of gatekeeping.

There are only guidelines.  There are no rules, just like with parenting in general, there is a lot of trial and error.  Your ex may not make it easy for you, now or ever.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t find your way forward independent of his behaviors, expectations, and disruptions.  Especially if he’s less stable, you need to be the calm, rational, stable parent your children know they can count on.

Remember that custody and visitation are modifiable.

In Virginia, custody and visitation – whether by order of the court or signed agreement between the parties – is modifiable based on a material change in circumstances.  So, if what you’re doing really isn’t working and the kids are suffering, you can petition to change custody.

Maybe you always knew this would happen.  Maybe it’s a surprise what a train wreck it’s turned into.  Whatever the case, if your kids aren’t doing well, then you can petition to change custody.  Give some consideration to what would work better and talk to a lawyer about your proposal, including the likelihood of success in your case.  Some things – modifications to parenting time – are easier than others – like relocating to an entirely new state.

Custody is always going to be incredibly fact specific, so it’s hard to give general advice about what might happen in your case.  The standard we’re using here, though, is best interests of the child and, though there’s no preference in Virginia for shared custody (or even 50/50, which is not necessarily the same thing) many judges believe that it’s a good starting point because it allows them access to both parents which is, apparently, a good thing.  I think custody is often more like a sliding scale; you might start out with shared or 50/50, but keep in mind that can change.  In a lot of cases, especially if dad is not willing to agree to primary physical custody, you’ll find you start at shared custody anyway but being able to show that the arrangement is not benefitting the kids would – depending on the evidence you can offer – be something you could introduce to argue that a different custodial arrangement would be better.

For more information, to register for our Custody Bootcamp seminar for moms, to download a copy of our custody guide, or to schedule a consultation, give us a call at 757-425-5200.