Good morning, Aubrey,
I am so inspired by your gentle and beautiful model of the Montessori lifestyle and parenting. I am emailing you today to ask for some recommendations you could give me so that I can better help my son through some life transitions.
I am a single mom, sharing custody with my son’s dad, and I have noticed my son having a difficult time with the adjustment between our house and his time with his dad.
Do you have any ideas on things that I can do to better help my son during these transitions, and to help his time back at home with me be even more successful, gentle and healing for him?
Dear, sweet mama…
I have never been separated from my children’s father, and I can only imagine what it is like to be in your shoes. Parenting while single and sharing your little sweetheart son with another person remotely sounds so stressful - for you and your child.
So before I talk about some strategies to help with transitions, I want you to know that just being in this situation takes a lot of bravery -- not just the weight of responsibility on your shoulders as a single mom but also to let go of what you cannot control on the other end. Please be kind to yourself and give yourself credit for all that you do already. You are enough just as you are. You are 100% brave.
That being said, let’s talk about transitions.
For every child at every stage of life, there must be a balance between consistent routines and open-ended flexibility. Children are born with a natural biological preference toward one end of the spectrum or another, and before you can determine how to best help your own child through any stressful life experience, you might pause first to consider whether your son generally responds positively to schedules.
The Sensitive Period for Order
No matter their personal biological leanings, child development research tells us that all children younger than age 6 are particularly attuned to the order of everything in their environments. In Montessori education, we call this the sensitive period for order.
“Order is one of the needs of life which, when satisfied, produces a real happiness.…Order consists in recognizing the place for each object in relation to its environment and in remembering where or each thing should be.
This implies that one is able to orient one's self within one's environment and to dominate it in all its details. The proper environment of the soul is one in which an individual can move about with eyes closed eyes and find, simply by reaching out his hand, anything he desires.
Such an environment is necessary for peace and happiness.” - Maria Montessori
This includes the hands-on things, such as where the day’s clothing can be found, to the intangible things, such as whether the teeth are brushed at night. The more consistent and intentional we are with our home spaces and rhythms, the better for our children’s sense of order.
You might start with making sure that your home spaces are cultivated in this way.
Make it Visual
Young children also often appreciate a good head’s up about what is to be expected of them at different times of the day.
You don’t have to get specific (after all, children don’t have firm concepts of time) but in general, knowing what is likely to happen next can provide your child a feeling of security when in your care.
Many parents create visual schedules to satisfy this need, and it’s not hard to do! You can use google images or clipart if you like, but the most effective visual schedules are photos of your child’s real routines in his real home.
When your child is happy and awake and ready to play with you, tell your child that you are going to document what happens during his day.
With him, role-play waking up in his bed (snap a photo!), choosing his clothes for the day (snap a photo!), brushing his teeth (snap a photo!), eating breakfast (snap a photo!), etc.
Try not to take too many pictures -- just the main events you would like to keep consistent.
Print them out and display them somewhere in your home. You might use a pre-made photo flip book or a piece of long poster board stapled to your wall. You can get all fancy and laminate them as cards that can be shifted around (a little velcro goes a long way) or you can just tack them up to the refrigerator.
It really doesn’t matter how pretty the presentation is.
The important thing is that sometime during the day when your child is first returning home to you, the two of you will review your photos in order. When you point to each photo, talk as meaningfully as you can about them. For example, “Here you are in your comfy bed. This is where you will sleep tonight when you go to bed. Do you want to sleep with your bear as usual or choose a different lovey to sleep with tonight?”
Going over the expected routine, even if it seems obvious to you, will comfort your little one and bring a sense of security when re-entering your environment after the disruption in routine.
Snuggles and Patience Both Win
Many children, after any kind of parent-separation (like having a babysitter or going to daycare or school), seek extra snuggles and will show clinginess. If your child does this, lean in to it and give alllll the extra snuggles you can stand.
Sometimes children will do the opposite as well -- outright ignoring you and refusing all physical contact for a while. If your child does this, be as patient as you can.
He is no doubt saying, “I missed you and I am upset about being apart.” His feelings are legitimate and you can acknowledge them while being patient.
Let Go of What You Cannot Control
Finally, you didn’t tell me in your email what your relationship is like with your son’s dad. Some separation/divorces end amicably and both work together to co-parent on the same page, even if they are living apart. Some have little contact with one another other than dropping off the child in one home or the other.
If your son’s dad is up for communicating about this issue, I would recommend that he do the same on his end. Cultivate his environment for consistency and offer some kind of visual schedule.
Note that his routine and environment do not have to match in order for your child to feel secure in both spaces. If he is up for keeping toothbrushing before bedtime just like you do, that’s great -- but it’s not your job to enforce it because it will be impossible for you to do so. Let it go, and if you need outside support, such as family counseling, please seek it out.
Children have the amazing ability to code-switch behaviors and understand expectations in different situations and environments. So don’t fret about a different routine or even different parenting strategies, although they may not be what you know in your heart is best -- just make sure that YOURS is as consistent and loving as possible.
P.S. I asked my Montessori facebook community what they would add, and I got this lovely response from a mom who is dealing with a similar situation as you but from a different perspective - as a stepmom of a blended family. Read her loving, gentle advice below.
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