If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
— Dorothy Law Nolte, PHD
Parenting exchanges are opportunities for a child to observe both parents at their best … or at their worst. When parents fight or are hostile towards each other during an exchange, a child may perceive that they are the cause of the conflict – after all, even a young child knows they are the reason the exchange is taking place. A child exposed to routine conflict may eventually learn to dread exchanges and become anxious about spending time with the receiving parent. When the exchange occurs without negativity, stress or incident, a child receives tacit permission to enjoy their time with the receiving parent, free from guilt or remorse that they have left the other parent “behind.”
Be on Time
Timeliness is the most important factor in a stress-free and successful exchange. Arriving on time should be a fairly straight forward and simple concept – yet it seems to pose the greatest challenge for many co-parents. Parents who are chronically late for exchanges frustrate the other parent and convey a negative message to the child. A receiving parent who often arrives late for the exchange signals that he/she has more important priorities than spending time with the child. A delivering parent who fails to respect scheduled exchange times can likewise convey that the child’s time with the receiving parent is not important. If punctuality is an issue, allow extra time for traffic and other potential delays. If you need to change the exchange time (or location), provide the receiving parent with reasonable notice.
Prepare the Child
Preparation is the second key to a stress-free exchange. Exchanges are transitions and transitions are difficult for everyone – especially children. Make sure your child is aware of the exchange plans and has sufficient time to finish any chore or activity they are doing. If the exchange is occurring outside of regular mealtimes, make sure the child has been fed. Any clothing which the child has brought from the receiving parent’s home should be cleaned, packed and returned to the other parent along with the child’s “special” items (such as a teddy bear or laptop computer) that travel back and forth between households, all prescription medications and medical supplies, school supplies (including homework and class projects), school uniforms and sports equipment. If the child has a cell phone or tablet, remind them to charge it in advance of the exchange – this will facilitate your ongoing contact with the child as well as frustrating that well-worn excuse of “we couldn’t find the charger.”
If you are in a high conflict situation, consider other alternatives to face-to-face exchanges such as the following:
- Door to Curbside – This is appropriate once the child is old enough to carry their belongings from the house to a waiting car.
- School/Day-Care – School or day-care exchanges during morning drop-off or afternoon pick-up times are a useful and subtle way to avoid any contact with the receiving parent. An additional benefit is that the child does not perceive any break in their schedule and nothing about the arrangement suggests to the child that his/her parents are avoiding each other.
- Public Locations – Public locations such as a library, coffee shop or mall can help encourage civil behavior as other people will be present.
Paid Exchange Services – Paid exchange services, such as the Karlis Family Center in Lakewood, will facilitate exchanges so that neither parent will have any contact with the other.
- Police Stations – A police station should only be utilized as a last resort. Precinct houses are frequented by people in distress and/or under arrest. This can be scary for a child and may raise questions as to why the exchange is occurring at this venue.