Custody Schedule Exchanges: Best Practices

Mom leaving son at door for custody schedule exchange.

Custody schedule exchanges (parenting time transitions) are ripe with opportunities for conflict between the parents. Yet, numerous studies have demonstrated that parental conflict is the most damaging aspect of a divorce for children. Whether you are in the middle of the divorce process, or have done many parenting time visitation exchanges, these parenting schedule / visitation exchange rules will help protect your children’s emotional well-being.

Custody Schedule Exchanges: Vulnerability for Kids

You may consider pick-ups and drop-offs as just another errand amidst the busy logistics of your day. However, these parenting schedule transitions have a great impact on your children. The transition welcomes them and sets the tone for the parent who is receiving them. It provides a sense of closure with the parent they are leaving. Your children have a different relationship and expectations with each of you. Much like your daily drive to work, they are mentally and emotionally preparing themselves for the next parent’s home.

The parenting time exchanges during a divorce or ongoing parenting conflict are especially nerve-wracking for kids. They scan for even subtle signs of co-parent strife, in hopes of feeling safe and having a stress-free transition. Minimizing this tension during divorce is another major benefit of mediation; it creates civility if you are working to make these difficult decisions together in mediation.

Parenting Transitions: Vulnerability for Parents

The transition can also be vulnerable for the parents. In my own alternating weekly parenting schedule, I was often excited and joyful at the beginning of the week with my daughter. After a week of full-time work and parenting, I was often depleted and crabby. While driving her to her other parent’s home I would express my mounting gripes about my daughters’ lack of organization, consideration, cleanliness, etc. Then, I would feel annoyed, sad, and regretful after dropping her off. She won’t see me for a week, and her last experience of me was that everything she did was wrong. No wonder she didn’t feel like calling me for a few days!

When I began to clearly see the impact of this routine, I vowed to change my behavior. No matter how irritated I was with her, I would protect the parenting time transition. At times, I would turn on the radio and sing along, reminding myself that my aggravation could wait another day.

This vulnerability and anxiety during custody schedule transitions is even greater for parents that are mired in anger, depression, jealousy, abandonment, rejection, etc. from the divorce. That anger is magnified if either parent believes the parenting schedule is unfair. Dropping children off or picking them up at the other parent’s home, or even glimpsing the other parent can trigger these feelings. Many of the parenting schedule exchange rules below are aimed at minimizing stress. Keep in mind that stress easily leads to conflict, and conflict between parents is proven to be damaging for children.

1. Minimize Your Children’s Stress During Parenting Exchanges

  • Have your kid(s) pack their bag before bedtime the night before the parenting time transition.
  • Remind your children 15 to 30 minutes before, so they are expecting the pick-up or drop-off.
  • If your child gets anxious or upset approaching the visitation exchange, empathize. “I know it’s hard for you to say goodbye to one parent and hello to the other parent.”
  • Show support for their relationship with the other parent. “Your dad will be happy to see you.” “Have a nice time at your mom’s house.”
  • Demonstrate civility and parental teamwork (even if there is little). Walk your child to the door, say a pleasant and neutral “Hello” to the other parent.

2. Avoid Parental Conflict During Parenting Time Exchanges

  • Establish a clear, consistent agreement of which parent does the transportation. Is it the parent beginning or ending parenting time? Read the last paragraph of this article for more thoughts on the matter.
  • Be punctual for custody schedule exchanges. If you will be more than 5 minutes late, call or text your ex. Consider that waiting for the other parent is unsettling for kids.
  • At all costs, avoid discussing anything volatile with your ex during the parenting exchange. If something essential needs discussing, call the other parent when the kids can’t overhear.
  • When you are at the other parent’s porch, don’t peek inside or make any comments about their place.
    If your child is at least 7 years old, make them responsible for packing their bags. You can support them with a checklist. If they forget something, they can go without it for a few days.
  • Consider implementing some of these other Top 10 Divorce Tips to reduce anxiety / conflict.

3. Protect Your Relationship with Your Child During Exchanges

  • Avoid any frustrated or upsetting conversations with your child within an hour of the parenting schedule transition.
  • If your child is becoming emotionally distant towards the end of your parenting time, don’t take it personally. They are mentally preparing themselves for the transition between homes.
  • Develop a consistent ritual you can do at the start and/or end of your parenting time. Get a snack from the same store. Feed the goldfish. Put the stuffed animals on the pillow.
  • Even though they know, tell your child when you will see them next.

To Pick-Up or Drop-off: Which Is Better for Joint Custody Exchanges?

Does the parent beginning or ending their parenting time transport the kids? There are advantages and disadvantages to each, depending on your child’s temperament and your relationship with your ex. Some children experience sadness while saying goodbye as they are getting dropped off. Other children have more sadness when they are leaving a parent and a home during a pickup. In helping hundreds of parents get a divorce in Oregon, I have encouraged parents to align their parenting transitions with school. That way, children never have to leave one parent to go to the other. Kids are usually happy to have either parent pick them up from school.

Another dynamic to consider is reducing the transition aggravation between parents. Are either one of you occasionally or regularly running late? If so, I’ve found it best if the parent ending parent time is the one who transports the kids. It can be maddening when the parent ending their parenting time is stuck, unable to move on to personal plans or tasks, while they sit around with their child, who is packed and waiting for the other parent to show up. On the other hand, is the parent who feels a scarcity (not enough) parenting time waiting for the other parent to drop off the child late once again? That is also a recipe for co-parenting disaster.