When parents split up it can be a tough time for everybody. One of the tricky things to negotiate is who lives where and with whom. There are many ways that families sort this out and one of them is shared custody.
What is shared custody?
In a shared custody situation, parents spend equal time with their children - often dividing the week or fortnight in two - and the kids move between two homes.
For some children and young people, especially when they are young, this can be a great arrangement - especially if they find themselves getting more time with each parent than they had before. Often parents who miss their kids when they are at the other parents' are keen to lavish extra attention on them when they return.
However, once young people reach their teenage years, this often changes. Teens can prefer to spend time with their peers rather than their family, and too much attention (from a parent who has been missing them) can feel awkward. Also, negotiating sporting, social and school activities and just hanging out with friends can get difficult when you are moving between two homes. Below there is some information about shared custody and some tips that might help if you find yourself in this situation.
Positives about shared custody families
Shared custody can have lots of positives, especially when parents are able to communicate well and cooperate after they have separated. Positives about being part of a shared family situation are things like:
- Having more attention and quality time with each parent. This can help you develop a closer relationship with your parents
- Parents being more available when you need help for a project, or a specific outing or plan
- Parents being more willing and available to go shopping or out for a coffee
- Having to compete less for a parent's time and attention
- Having two of everything like two homes, two bedrooms, two lots of different pets and two birthday celebrations
- Gaining extra family members, for example step or half siblings. Building new relationships and friendships with new siblings can be exciting and has benefits that can last a lifetime
- Living with mum or dad when they are not stressed at each other - this can be much nicer and more peaceful
- More independence at a particular parent's house (e.g. staying up later) and being treated in a more grown up way
Challenges in shared custody families
Shared custody can sometimes create a lot of stress for young people, for many practical and emotional reasons. This can be more so if there is still unresolved conflict between parents. Challenges include:
- Feeling like you don't have one place to belong to. This is particularly stressful for people who like to have one base and a stable routine
- Parents not living close to each other. It can be hard to attend social and sporting activities due to travel and distance
- Forgetting stuff you need such as homework or clothing between houses. It can be frustrating not having your things when you need them
- Being at a different house each week. This might mean missing out on seeing your friends or missing sporting or extra curricular activities that you normally like to do when you are at the other house
- Having different expectations about how you dress, what you do and where you're allowed to go in different households can be confusing
- Having different food at different houses or different cultural expectations
- Having different rules and chores in each house. For example watching TV or having friends around might be okay in one house but not the other. You might have to help out in one house and get to relax more in the other. This can seem unfair at times and may feel overwhelming and frustrating
- Gaining a step-family. This may feel awkward and confusing. You may find that you have different roles in each household. In one house you may be the oldest, and act accordingly. In the other house you may be the youngest. You may be an only child in one house and part of a bigger family in the other
- Worrying about a parent feeling lonely or isolated when you are not at their house and feeling responsible
- Not wanting to hurt the other parent's feelings and therefore taking care of their feelings instead of your own
- Feeling uncomfortable being asked by one parent about the other parent and feeling caught up in their conflict when you don't want to be
- A parent wanting to spend more time with you than you want to and finding it hard to tell them that you want time alone or with your friends
- Sharing good news or up and coming events. It can be challenging knowing which parent to tell first
- Deciding between which parents to sit with at school events or celebrations
- Having parents ask you to choose one house to live in instead of two. It can be difficult to choose one parent over the other, even though you'd rather just live in one house
- Having strong feelings about the situation, feeling angry and not coping well with so many changes
Managing moving between two homes
While there may be some positives and some challenges for having two homes, there are some things that may be useful to try to make transitioning easier. These include:
- Make a list of things to help you remember what to pack
- Keep a diary of your weekly plans and where you have to be
- Draw up a monthly schedule or use a monthly calendar, and have the same at both houses, so everyone knows what's coming up
- Communicate as soon as you can with both your parents about things that are happening at school, after school, socially with your friends, events and sports events so that the schedule can be updated for everyone's benefit
- Remind your parents to include you in the planning and give you space to talk and contribute ideas - remember your parents are not mind readers, so communication and negotiation is important
- Find healthy ways to stay in touch with your friends and family when you are away or unable to attend functions
- Set goals you would like to do with each of your families such as holiday times or special occasions
At times, you may have a range of intense feelings either about your parent's separation, changes or living in two homes. Remember, your feelings are quite normal and many young people your age are in the same situation as you. Common feelings may include:
- Stress - this could be about remembering everything to pack, or meeting different rules at two different houses
- Feeling angry or resentful - this could be about the situation
- Guilt - about wanting to live with one parent instead of the other, but not wanting to say anything to hurt the other parent
- Anxious or worried - this could be about not seeing your friends or coping with changes
- Sadness - over the loss of things the way they used to be or not feeling like things are 'normal' anymore
- Feeling like things aren't fair or just
You may also have some happier feelings such as:
- Relief - that you are no longer living in a situation where your parents are angry and in conflict all the time
- Contentment, love and appreciation - from getting to have more special times with each of your parents
Remember, all your feelings are normal and finding healthy ways of managing negative feelings is important. Talking to someone really helps and it's important that you feel you can get support and understanding from people who really love and care about you.
Talking to your parents about what you need
Adjusting to all the changes that come with a shared custody arrangement can be challenging - usually everyone needs time to adjust. Good communication can be helpful at this time. It can be a really good idea to talk about how it is for you with your parents, as they may also be adjusting to big changes and may not be aware of how it is for you. Here are some ideas about how to communicate with your parents:
- Find a time when they seem less busy and are more relaxed
- Include talking times over dinner
- Call a family meeting
- Take the opportunity to talk when it arises
For many reasons, talking to your parents may not seem like a good option. If this is the case for you, it can help to find another adult that you trust to talk with. Kids Helpline counsellors talk to lots of young people who are in this situation. Talking to a counsellor can help you express how you are feeling, put your thoughts and feelings into order and maybe even help you come up with ideas and options to improve things.
If you need someone to talk to about how you are feeling, or about how shared custody is affecting you, you can call Kids Helpline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 1800 55 1800, or use our email or web counselling services. We will listen to you and help you work out what might help.
Reviewed: March 2015