Emotional jetlag? The unspoken challenge for kids in shared care.

Emotional jetlag? The unspoken challenge for kids in shared care.

Moving between homes is undoubtedly one of the hardest things for children to have to deal with following parental separation and divorce. It can be made even harder when parents are in conflict, hostile towards one another or have very different approaches to running their households, parenting philosophies, and rules, and expectations.

The period leading up to a changeover and immediately following time spent with a parent can carry a lot of emotions  for children - grief, guilt, apprehension, worry, relief, sadness, anger, frustration, excitement and even happiness for being back with their other parent and in their other home.

What is emotional jetlag?

Emotional jetlag is a term I use to explain what children who live across two homes can experience around changeovers, as they ‘travel’ between their parents.  

It's the abyss between what happens when they have been with one parent in one home for a period of time and what awaits them upon their transition into their other parent’s care and their other home.

In my professional experience, when suffering emotional jet lag, kids tend to be “synced” to the home and parent they have left and a little out of sync with the environment they enter into. They need time to recalibrate and adjust to the rules and expectations of the home into which they have just arrived.

This period of recalibration can be a little confusing and disorienting, especially for younger kids. During this time, they may accidentally call the parent they are with by their other parent’s name or forget a well-established household rule or are more likely to challenge or whine about a rule e.g. “but why? mum/dad always lets me do that!”

Symptoms of emotional jetlag in children.

Emotional jetlag can throw a child’s sleep or even cause them to act up and other behavioural and emotional symptoms that persist for a couple of hours or, depending on the circumstances, even days after a changeover.

Symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue.
  • Not being able to focus or function at their usual level.
  • Quieter or more reserved than usual.
  • Emotional difficulties and more easily crying or becoming tearful.
  • Mood changes - being moody or irritable or cranky.
  • A general feeling of being out of sorts for no obvious reason.
  • Emotional outbursts that seem inconsistent with how they usually act.
  • Have trouble falling or staying asleep.
  • Being overly clingy.

The duration or severity of symptoms varies depending on the child, their temperament, their family circumstances, their relationships, they type of parenting schedule in place and frequency and duration of time spent in each home.

What makes it worse.

It will come as no surprise to parents that emotional jetlag can be made worse by a variety of things such as:

  • Tiredness from travelling, or general tiredness after a long day at school/childcare.
  • Stress generated by being stuck in a confined space e.g., car or bus for a period of time or having their parents being in the same physical space and in proximity to one another.
  • Hunger and being 'hangry'. When blood sugar levels drop drastically, the brain does not receive the nutrient-dense fuel it needs, so the body releases stress hormones. Hunger leads to exhaustion, lack of focus, and anger.
  • Exposure to parental tension or conflict at the point of changeover
  • The presence of big, messy feelings associated with simultaneously saying goodbye and hello to people important to them that they love.

How to help.

Keep in mind that emotional jetleg is temporary. And, with a bit of time, warmth, sensitively and patience, it typically passes fairly quickly.

In this way keeping routines as predictable and as ordinary as possible can help kids find a soft landing.  Say hello, greet them warmly and with affection, let them know you are very happy to see them but make their arrival home fairly uneventful.

It helps when their homecoming routine is very predictable and low key.

I explore how to support your children around changeovers and as they navigate emotional jetlag in various blogs and also in my newly released children’s book ‘Milly’s Parent Airport’ 

Obviously if you are worried about how your child is coping and they don’t seem to be adjusting, don’t hesitate to speak with your coparent (if possible), and/or seek professional advice.

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