Coming Home: Custody Transition Do’s and Don’ts

Teenagers Packing

Over the years, Billy and I have shared custody in many different ways. We’ve bird nested, alternated every two days, spent time in a 2/5/5/2, and most recently, adopted a week-to-week schedule. While when the children change homes has varied throughout our co-parenting journey, how they feel coming home on transition day has not.

Transition day is tough.

Our children have a great shared custody situation. Billy and I co-parent well. We are friendly and open with each other and the stepparents in our tribe. We flex our schedule as the kids need. Our houses are fairly close to each other, and we can easily pick up forgotten school books and sneakers. Our rules are consistent between homes, and kids keep the same bedtimes. Each house is stocked with clothes and electronic chargers and favorite stuffed toys.

Transition day is still tough.

Lottie once described it this way: “Transitions make me happy because I see you and Daddy in the same day, but makes me sad because I am saying good-bye to one of you and that house and I have to remember all the things at the other house.” She was five.

Mixed emotions, especially tied to the love of parents and grief around divorce (even years later), can be difficult for children of any age to manage. Change is tough for all of us; I built a 20-year corporate career helping adults better accept change. Transitions bubble those issues to the surface, on a day when kids must remember rain jackets and the book they’ve almost finished on the way out the door. It’s a potent cocktail.

Through trial and error (and slammed doors and crying fits) I’ve developed a handful of do’s and don’ts that make coming home on transition day a little bit easier on all of us.

Do Keep It Low-Key: As excited as I am to see the crew, we keep things quiet on transition day. No dinners out, no friends over. Just us, at home together.

Do Look for One on One Time: If I can make time for each child to have my ear exclusively, or snuggle a bit before bedtime, the day runs more smoothly. I try to clear my to-do list for homecoming night so that I can give the kids my undivided attention. Someone always needs it.

Do Find a Routine and Stick to It: Lottie and I read together after her bath. Caden checks his homework one last time after brushing his teeth. We may stray from these routines from time to time, but on transition day we stick to them. Jumping back into a familiar routine helps provide a sense of security.

Don’t Overwhelm: I am always excited to have my babies back. In the past, I’d rush to tell them all the fun things we had planned for the week ahead. I’d also tell them about doctor’s appointments, school events, and catch them up on anything they’d missed while they were at Dad’s house.

It’s also normal for transitions to trigger feelings of anxiety and grief…

kate chapman

I thought I was setting the stage and helping them settle in. I was absolutely wrong.

Playing the part of the cruise director for the week didn’t prepare the children, it overwhelmed them. Our evenings often took a left turn into anxiety over what was to come or concern about something they missed. Now, I wait until after transition day to talk about the week ahead unless a child has specific or urgent questions. I only cover what happened in their absence if it has importance to them in the future.

Don’t Take the Transition Day Bait: “Dad said…”, “At the other house…”It is normal for kids to process the transition between houses by noticing and articulating differences. It’s also normal for transitions to trigger feelings of anxiety and grief; moving between houses is a present, current reminder that the first family doesn’t live together anymore.

The best I can be in this situation is a steady, calming force. I don’t take children’s observations as judgment. I don’t dive into the differences between houses, or probe for what happened while they were with their father. If I hear about something that concerns me, I address it with him privately later. I try not to react to the emotions that sometimes spill over.

My focus on transition day is getting us all tucked into bed without a major meltdown. Taking any of the emotional trigger bait sent my way derails us.

Don’t Punish: If a child misbehaves on the day he arrives back home, I generally ignore it. I may gently remove him from the situation, or redirect but I almost always let it go. I dig deep and pile on the love. In all the years of transitioning, I can think of one time where something that happened on transition day required a discussion the following day. Usually, the old mantra that “this too shall pass” applies.

Finally, do give your co-parenting partner credit. In the early days of our shared custody arrangement, I often made the mistake of assuming the kids were upset by something that happened at Billy’s house. I thought the crying and sullenness were because of the time they spent away from me.


The years have taught me our children are happy and healthy in each of their homes. The time is peppered with the normal kid and teen drama, to be sure, but they are happy overall. It is the transition that stirs up negative emotion, not the time with the other parent. Having a plan for the transition day home helps ease the discomfort and move us quickly on to the happy week ahead.