Non residential single parenting: practical parenting strategies

In my article Single Parenting: coping as a non-resident parent, we discussed coping from the perspective of the emotional, physical and personal challenges of being a non-resident single parent. We also looked at setting up the best transition and environment for your kids.

This naturally leads to questions regarding the best parenting strategies to follow, as a non-resident single parent.

As might be expected, parenting in a non-resident parent role has some unique challenges. And, there are some practical and helpful strategies that you can follow, to thrive best as a parent in this challenging situation.

Reference to non-resident parent

A brief review first, from my previous article. The Family Court now refers to the non-resident parent, rather than defining ‘access’ or determining ‘custody’. A non-resident parent typically has less time with their children, e.g. often only seeing their kids for several days in a fortnight. By far, the greatest majority of non-resident parents are dads, but many mums also fulfil this very important role. Regardless, when making any decisions or following any strategies, determining what is best for your kids needs to be above all else.

Kids and transition

Your kids will likely be slightly unsettled or unsure at transition time. Depending on their nature, they may need a little extra reassurance and comforting. It helps if they have very familiar things about them, as well as places to keep their favourite things on display. Seeing treasures or familiar photos often helps ease kids in.

Also reassure your kids how happy you are to see them, as well as discuss what they might like to do and try to explain what might happen in the next few days. Kids cope better when they can see what is ahead. It doesn’t have to all be locked in. You can be flexible and changes will inevitably happen.

Some kids can be clever in these situations, to extract more of what they want. Similarly, some kids can confuse getting mum or dad to do what they desire with signs of love. Real love comes from time, communication, regard, recognition and engagement.

While you can discuss fun activities, try to avoid becoming an entertainment director with limitless funds. Instead, be firm and confident in explaining that you want to spend time, not money, such as finding out what they have been doing, participating in helping with school work or tasks, helping with interests, sharing time, etc.

Rules and responsibilities

Being a non-resident single parent can also result in your kids having different rules or responsibilities at your ex-partner’s house.

Not surprisingly, many divorced couples or separated couples have different beliefs or values, so their parenting styles and expectations can naturally differ. It certainly helps kids to have consistent rules from home to home, but this is not always possible.

As a single parent, you need to be more consistent and firm with rules and rewards in your home. Your kids can adjust, as long as you explain that these are the rules, consequences and rewards in your home. Protests will often eventuate, such as, “…but we don’t have to do that at mum’s house…” or, “…not fair, dad lets us stay up later…”

These complaints and whining are to be expected. You can be diplomatic and explain that you will check with the other parent, but most important is to explain that these are the consistent boundaries and rules in this home. Try to avoid getting into blaming battles or angry responses, like, “…I don’t care what your mother does…” Instead, be confident and positive in affirming your position, such as, “…that’s fine, but we discussed this and agreed on the rules here…mum can have her rules, that’s fine, but in this home this is the way we do things”.

Try to avoid making it all rules and boundaries, even though kids do thrive best with limits in this unstable world. Be very sure to remind them of the praise, rewards and positives that they get for complying or for being helpful. Also, at all costs, avoid criticising or judging your ex-partner. Kids hate being in the middle of such battles and the more clever kids soon learn to use this tactic to divide and conquer, and get their own way.

At least, try to be respectful and tolerant of your ex-partner’s style or position. If this is unmanageable for you, separate yourself in the conversation, such as, “…sorry, I can’t talk about what mum does, I can only discuss how things work in this home, so all of us in this home can get on best and be happiest…remember, I won’t talk about mum“.

While on this point, avoid any temptation to have your kids report on what goes on at mum’s or dad’s place, such as, “…oh really, so what silly things has your dad been up to…?”  This is not the time to play detective, unless your kids bring a serious concern to you. If kids are really troubled they will usually raise matters themselves or disclose to another trusted person. In this rare case, it is best to use a mediator or professional person, rather than taking on a battle yourself.  

Some kids also arrive at their other home in a whirlwind of activity and angst. This often leads to pushing boundaries, acting out or seeking attention. It is great that your kids are all excited to arrive, but it can be equally problematic if they are anxious. As a single parent, it helps to often slow the process down and begin with ‘calm time’, e.g. all sitting around the kitchen bench, having a cool drink and catching up. If your kids are too hyped, they might even need to go outside for a calm walk, then start over again, in a calmer tone, thus helping to set the tone for a better period together.

Support and strategies

Being a non-custodial single parent can be exhausting.

It is often very helpful to join a single-parent support group, allowing you to share feelings, to get support and to find clever strategies to manage. Single parents can often also share the load or cooperate on weekends, when demands get too much, e.g. two of the mums I see, who are both in a non-custodial single-parenting role, go away on holidays together, giving each other company and a little time off.

Similarly, there are some great Single Parent with Kids organisations, who can be helpful or who can give great support, such as having planned activities for groups of non-custodial single parents. If your role as a single parent means more than several days of your kids being with you, you might need to schedule some brief time out for yourself. Adjusting to being on your own, to having kids around for three or four days, can be unsettling.

Remember the normal resources that might be available, such as visiting grandparents or going to scheduled activities, so you are not in an intense interaction for all this period. However, this is not an excuse for dumping your kids, because you are too busy. Your kids need your genuine attachment and attention.

Communication and individual time

In some instances, being a single parent is complicated in that your new partner may also have their kids for a period, such as for the weekend. Blending all these kids, with individual needs, can be a frightening challenge.

Communication first is the key. It is essential that you both discuss what to expect, how to be consistent in managing challenging or attention seeking behaviour, and to agree on routines and boundaries for the home. Consistency is very important. You can’t have one rule for your kids and different rules for your new partner.

Again, it is very important that all kids are treated equally and that everyone sticks to the rules for the home, and everyone is given equal attention, recognition and praise. Often, it is necessary to have a written agreement, so everyone is clear.

Also, individual time is important for your kids. Try to find some time with just your kids, as all kids desire some individual attention, or some one on one time with mum or dad. Thus, try to avoid always having the blended family involved. It might just be a trip to the shops together, away from the others, or a quiet chat together when walking the dog, as well as quiet time sharing and talking at bedtime.

Staying involved and connected

Being successful as a parent, when you do have direct contact with your kids, also relies on what you do when they are not there. If you keep involved in their life, keep regular contact and keep engaged, then it is easier to be a mum or dad when your treasured time arrives.

Making phone calls, using the Internet or using other forms of communication helps greatly to keep connected. Similarly, visits to the school, helping with homework during the week, having copies of school reports, reading sports newsletters or helping with sport can make transition and thus parenting, easier. Try to avoid just being the ‘good guy’ on the weekend, as kids can tend to lose respect for this parent. Similarly, kids who have a ‘strict parent’ all week, but the ‘good guy’ parent (for non-custodial periods) learn to demand more and more treats each time they are at mum or dad’s home.

Overall, while being a non custodial single parent can be challenging, it is also a hugely rewarding time. As a single parent you can have wonderful, engaging and very meaningful relationships with your kids.

Above all, remember that you are always a parent, even if your relationship did not survive. Regardless of circumstances, good mums are always mums, and good dads are always dads.  

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