While all children look forward to the relaxation that summer brings, with later bedtimes, pool dates and overnights with friends, children of difficult divorces must also deal with the complication of having two parents who seem unable to make arrangements. Tasks that require simple planning, such as preparing for camp or accommodating last-minute plans, can leave children exposed to conflict and division. The result: Summer memories that should be happy are instead tainted because negative feelings between parents get in the way of putting children's needs first.
Summer parenting schedules often differ from those in place during the school year. Changes may include extending time with one parent because distance between residences has prevented equal sharing of time during the year, or longer periods with each parent to accommodate summer vacation planning.
We all want summer to be relaxing and fun. Ensure that your kids return to school with positive summer memories involving both parents. Julie Gowthorpe, author of "Tainted Love: Why Your Ex is Making You Miserable and What You Can Do About It," shares seven strategies for a healthy summer plan for divorced parents.
1. Avoid parental power struggles
Summer is a time for kids to enjoy the outdoors, play with friends and explore new interests. It's not the time for parents to "flex muscle" over who gets to make what decision. If Mom registers the child for camp and it's a camp that the child will enjoy, accept it. If Dad plans Wednesday night baseball games that the child will enjoy, accept it. Parents should remember that kids should be encouraged to have fun with both parents. If one parent has the opportunity to expose a child to a new or fun event, this should be encouraged.
2. Respect your child's interests
Perhaps your child has always participated in a summer camp that she enjoyed. Perhaps your child joined a summer soccer league prior to your separation from your spouse. Although your life has changed since the separation, your child's life should remain as consistent as possible. Continue with activities that have always meant "summer" to your child, even if you want to spend summer differently as a single parent or as a parent with a new partner. Kids' interests come first.
3. Allow older children and teens to have input on summer planning
Avoid dictating how the summer will unfold to your children. If you and your former spouse decided on the summer parenting time schedule, ensure that your children have input into how they want to spend their weeks with each parent. This is particularly important for older children, who often look forward to time with friends during summer vacation.
4. Recognize that children worry, even if they don't tell you
This point should be remembered at all times. If Dad seems upset because "Mom is not being flexible" or Mom is sad because "Dad is getting in the way of summer plans," children become pulled and stressed. Keep your feelings to yourself or a trusted person away from your children. If you feel bothered by your former partner, focus on minimizing stress for your children, even if it feels like giving in.
5. Celebrate the other parent's efforts to make summer fun
Be excited for your children if your former spouse plans an activity or outing. Remind your children that you're happy that they're able to have fun summer activities, regardless of whether you're involved.
6. Avoid framing parenting time with your child as "my time"
Whether children are with Mom or Dad, the time belongs to the child, not the parent. Too often, parents argue that children can't participate in certain activities because it's "my time." Remember that your children have one life. and you're part of it. They're not there to meet your needs.
7. Use summer to enhance parent-child time
If distance is a factor between the parental residences, use the summer to maximize the child's time with the parent who doesn't provide primary care during the school year. While this is a good general rule, keep in mind the age of the children and their emotional tolerance for being away from the parent who provides primary care. A good strategy is to ask yourself what time frame will best allow for your child to have a positive, stress-free visit.
Committing to a child-centered summer schedule will build or reinforce a healthy parent-child relationship. Children look to their parents to act in their best interests; this includes reducing stress, avoiding conflict in their presence and ensuring that they have positive summer experiences. Parents should reflect on their willingness and ability to put their own feelings about their former spouse aside to meet the needs of their children. When parents take purposeful, conscious steps in making summer vacation positive for children, this is a step forward in supporting healthy childhood development. Allow summer to enrich your children's experiences and memories with both parents.
Julie Gowthorpe, Ph.D., R.S.W. has a doctorate in social work from the University of Toronto, a master's in social work from McGill University and a bachelor's with honors from Carleton University. She operates a full-time-plus private practice providing individual, couples and family counseling as well as assessments in Belleville, Ontario. She testifies as an expert, carries out custody and access and parenting capacity assessments, and works therapeutically with children and parents affected by marital dissolution.