Eight-year-old Denton Arb sits at his mom’s kitchen table sandwiched between his mom, his dad and his stepmom. The four are laughing together about how hectic the holidays can be between all their families. “He has about five different places he has to be on Christmas Day,” jokes Denton’s stepmom, Dallas Arb, as she tickles him. “It can be a little chaotic.”
“Well, I like how my life is,” Denton giggles, clinging to his stepmom’s arm. “I wouldn’t have two sisters if I didn’t have two houses.”
As if on cue, in walks his stepdad with 3-year-old Kellyn and 8-year-old Peighton, energized from Peighton’s volleyball practice. Denton immediately jumps up from the table and rushes to embrace his sisters. Seven people, two houses and many dynamics come together to create what Denton knows as his home.
The definition of “home” is ever evolving, especially as more kids split their time between two houses. Given what seems to be a growing number of blended families, it would be understandable to presume that the divorce rate in the United States is rising. In reality, the divorce rate is steadily declining—but so is the marriage rate. So while fewer people are filing for divorce, fewer people are tying the knot to begin with.
Still, it’s not just married couples who break up: TIME Magazine published an article in November 2018 citing evidence that more people than ever before are choosing cohabitation over marriage. And more than half the children of those cohabiting couples will experience a parental breakup by their ninth birthday.
So do these kids who experiences divorce or separation view “home” differently than kids living with both parents under one roof? Rebekah dePeo-Christner, a counselor at CCD Counseling in Lewisville, says that the same principles that create feelings of “home” for kids apply to households where the parents are together and households where the parents live separately. But, she adds, “just because you are co-parenting, doesn’t mean that the homes have to be identical.” Promoting similar routines and stability is more important than attempting to replicate an environment that your child is already familiar with.
This is why open communication between parents is so imperative for kids like Denton. dePeo-Christner says it’s necessary for parents to come together to facilitate that feeling of “home” in both houses—even when their situation is not as harmonious as that of Denton’s family. When co-parents are at odds with one another, dePeo-Christner encourages parents to focus on what they can control: their own home environment and personal decision-making.
“You can’t control what the other parent does, but you can try to ensure that your homes are made up of the same three fundamental elements of structure, consistency and predictability,” she says. While these three elements are foundational in any home, they are especially vital in situations of separation or divorce where kids might be aware that their parents are not on the same page.
Structure & Consistency
“Whether you have a 2-year-old or a 15-year-old, it’s important to establish the rules and expectations early on,” dePeo-Christner says. Implementing routines and daily schedules, along with delineating the rules of engagement, help create structure in a child’s environment, which is essential for the space to feel like home.
Plus, outlining the rules invites good behavior—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a child is more likely to respond better when the consequences for breaking the rules are very clear. Simply knowing what to expect not only leads to improvements in your child’s behavior but simultaneously strengthens the parent-child relationship.
Even in an amicable situation, children with multiple homes feel a loss of control while adjusting to new living environments. DePeo-Christner says that giving your child the opportunity to offer feedback on the structure of the home lightens the stress and anxiety they feel. For example, a child could contribute to rules involving safety—“No using the scissors without asking” or “Keep out of the kitchen when an adult isn’t present” is practical enough that a child can appreciate the logic behind the rule. You could then decide together what the consequence for breaking that rule will be, and your child will better understand why.
The common goal should be the child’s happiness. That’s a major part of “home.”
“Asking them for their opinion will give them that control factor back, even if [their opinion is] not the deciding factor,” dePeo-Christner explains. “Just giving them that validation of opinion lets them feel that their contributions are important in the structure of the household.”
The tricky part is maintaining consistency within that structure. Changing up the routine or varying the ways you discipline causes uncertainty, which puts unnecessary stress on a child, according to dePeo-Christner. But being consistent can be a difficult task to master as co-parents.
DePeo-Christner explains that kids with more than one household are often in tune with this struggle and consequently more likely to test those boundaries when traveling from house to house. “Being consistent with your consequences … ensures that your child feels secure in both your expectations and their own,” she says.
Expectations that are clear and predictable across the board help your child adjust from one atmosphere to another. It’s great if both parents can agree on what those expectations should be, but consistency within each home is central, especially when the rules vary between homes.
“Whatever rules you have put in place in your household need to be straightforward and firm,” dePeo-Christner says. She adds that children are very responsive and adaptive to their environments, so structure helps guide how they will behave in each home.
“Think about how kids adapt to a school setting and rules there,” she says. “Then think about how they adapt to their grandparents’ house and those rules, where the discipline is more relaxed. Then they come home into their own household, and they know that those rules will be more firm than Grandma’s. Kids are very adaptable as long as they know what the expectations are.”
This might be the case, but Kathleen Schofield, a counselor at Insights Collaborative Therapy Group in Dallas, believes that in order for there to be true consistency, the same rules and schedule must be present in both homes. “That way there’s the expectation of when they’re going to do schoolwork, when they can get on their phones, when they can play games or watch television,” she explains. “It’s important that it’s congruent in both households and not confusing.”
This also prevents one parent from being deemed the “favorite” or “fun” parent while the other is labeled the “punisher.”
“Something I do see a lot of is competition between parents,” Schofield says. “They want the child to be happier at their house, and the reality is kids pick up on that.” Schofield says that when there is healthy communication between parents and consistency regarding rules and consequences, children are more likely to feel safe no matter where they are—a key characteristic of what makes a home, well, home.
“That’s really the main thing you want to come out of the separation process,” Schofield says. “They need to worry about just being a kid.”
One thing that threatens consistency—and the sense of security that comes with? Showing possession over your child and the things you’ve bought for them. Schofield says parents can become territorial, pitting “Mom’s stuff” against “Dad’s stuff.” The biggest problems she sees usually involve things like sports equipment and dance gear.
“Some kids will have to change out of certain clothes before they go from one parent’s house to another,” she says. But for the child, their things (including their clothes) are part of their home, no matter which house they’re at. Putting possessions in the shuffle of switching from house to house detracts from that consistency.
“When kids have to worry about what stuff goes where and to whose house, they’re being thrown into the middle of that adult conflict,” Schofield says. “The fluidity of that stuff that needs to go back and forth needs to match the fluidity of communication between parents. It should be healthy enough that moving stuff back and forth can happen.
“I try and get parents to go from exes to co-parents,” she continues.
Denton’s parents share 50-50 custody of their son: His mom, Misty Wilt, has him Monday and Tuesday; his dad, Derrick Arb, has him Wednesday and Thursday; and they alternate weekends.
“Denton always knows where he’s going to be,” Wilt says. “When he wakes up, he asks, ‘What day is it?’ Then he knows, ‘OK, this is my mom’s day.’ We try and stay on track and let him know in advance if anything is going to be changing.”
This is the kind of predictability that kids need from their homes, and it’s facilitated by simple, open communication.
“Set out a very clear schedule on the fridge or on your child’s door telling them where they will be, with whom and when,” suggests Lisa Lawson, a counselor at The Oak Inside clinic in Keller. And remember those rules you worked on together? Having the house guidelines hashed out in advance and ready to refer back to is an important part of maintaining a sense of predictability in the home. “Keeping it simple makes it easier for everyone to stick to it,” Lawson says.
Wilt, Arb and their spouses have an ongoing group text called “Denton’s Parents” where they can openly communicate about anything Denton- or schedule-related. It wasn’t always so simple though. All four parents admit that it took a lot of trial and error to get to the point where they could effectively correspond with each other as co-parents.
“It’s definitely been a roller coaster,” Wilt says, though she did not want their specific struggles to be published. “When we first split up, mine and Derrick’s relationship wasn’t anywhere near what it is now.”
Arb agrees, adding that it has made all of their lives “a lot better just being open and communicating with each other as Denton’s family.”
The three elements of structure, consistency and predictability work together to create what kids from any background seek out most in a home: security. Any type of environmental change, even those undertaken out of love or necessity, can compromise your child’s perception of home as a secure environment. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says that although parents might be devastated or even relieved after a divorce, the children involved are often scared and confused because their sense of security is threatened. Remaining sensitive to that fear will better equip you to connect with your child and then appropriately respond to their needs.
“Home should be your safe spot. You should be able to be yourself and be vulnerable with your emotions. Children need that anywhere they call home.”
She says that while all kids require this feeling of safety, kids dealing with the effects of a two-home scenario might be more emotionally charged due to the transition and will need both spaces to be feel equally, consistently safe—and that’s a goal both parents must agree to work toward.
“A home provides security when both parents recognize the importance of the other and that good times are had in both places,” Schofield says.
Wilt reveals that her own need for security is just as important to her as Denton’s. She admits to feeling very threatened after the divorce. “I realized that when I gave his dad 50-50 custody, that I gave up the right to be there 100% of the time,” she says.
“You have to accept that your kid can love more than one person, and that there are never too many people that can love them in return.”
“That was one of the hardest things in the beginning,” Wilt continues. “I didn’t want another mom for my kid, but I also didn’t want my son crying for a mom when he was with his dad. I had to adjust to him having a mom over there, and now I’m so glad he has her.” She adds that Denton deserves both parents no matter what home he resides in. “I never want him to be without a role model just because it’s not my weekend.”
Denton says that when he’s at his mom’s, he likes being there because he has his two sisters. “My sisters are nice to me and not mean like most sisters are,” he explains. While at his dad’s, he is the only child in the household and gets direct one-on-one time with Dad. “I get to do boy stuff with my dad and ride four-wheelers when I’m with him,” he says. “I just think my life is perfect with two homes.”
But as with everything in life, there is a negative side—Denton is quick to speak up on what he dislikes the most about having two homes: “Double the chores. Yuck.”
This article was originally published in May 2019.