No matter how you spin it, getting divorced is tough — especially if you have kids. Even if the decision to part ways is clearly the best (or only) one, the resulting separation can be traumatizing for children. Research shows that the best way to avoid risking the well-being of kids going through this difficult process, is to keep it as low-conflict and amicable as possible.
How do you do that? For some divorcing or divorced parents, the answer is ‘nesting’ (also called 'birdnesting'). This means to keep the family residence intact as a home where both parents rotate living with their children, while otherwise dwelling in separate residences.
One apartment in rotation, and the family home for all stays with kids
Sherri Sharma, partner at Aronson, Mayefsky & Sloan, LLP, a matrimonial law firm in NYC typically sees divorcing parents who take a nesting approach by keeping the main house and then sharing a separate apartment, which they individually occupy when not “at home” with the children.
“The way I've seen nesting done is not people having three homes, as most people, even quite wealthy clients, don't find that feasible,” Sharma tells NBC News BETTER. “Usually the parents have a studio apartment they share and rotate, and then keep the marital home where the children stay put.”
The motivating concept behind nesting, as Sharma puts it, is “there's little disruption for the kids. They're not being affected [environmentally] by the fact that their parents are separating.”
Short-term nesting is the healthiest way to do it
Sharma has seen nesting work out well for clients who are parting amicably, but only if it’s done in the short-term.
“I’ve never seen ‘nesting’ go on forever,” says Sharma. “A few months is okay but for longer periods (beyond six months), I think the uncertainty of not knowing what it will really be like to have separate homes can be confusing or anxiety-[inducing] for children.”
Dr. Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist and the author of “The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child” concurs with Sharma on a short-term nesting plan, and actually finds this method to be beneficial to children. She caps it at three months.
‘The shock of the painful news to the children is softened by a brief transitional period in which the kids’ environmental surroundings remain the same and the only change is the presence of one parent or the other, versus both [parents] at the same time,” says Walfish. “Any longer than a period of three months of nesting risks giving your children an inaccurate message that [the parents] are working on reconciliation. All children of divorce fantasize and wish for their parents to work things out and return to being a complete family unit.”
Some of the biggest perks are practical
Celeste Viciere, a licensed mental health clinician finds that nesting can benefit children both socially, and when it comes to practical everyday stuff.
“Having the children live in the same house that is familiar to them can be beneficial because it's easier to stay in the same school and keep the same friend group. Often when kids have to bounce between different households, it tends to affect their social lives due to the location,” says Viciere. “Another upside to nesting is that kids don't have to lug their belongings back and forth between two places. It allows the kids to come to terms with the divorce without being separated from the environment they have always known.”
But Viciere, too, sees the downsides of nesting.
“[Nesting] may feel confusing to a child,” she says, echoing Walfish’s concerns. “Children may struggle with having amazing family memories in the house but feel unable to share them together anymore. It could also lead to a false sense of reality where they become hopeful that their parents could get back together.”
To make it work, parents need to be on the best terms
Shelley A. Senterfitt, a family lawyer-turned-therapist specializing in family law issues and relationships, does not recommend nesting as she finds that it can create opportunity for the very kind of conflict divorcing parents are trying to avoid.
Senterfitt offers the following hypothetical conflict that could arise: “Imagine if it’s mom’s week with the kids in the marital residence. She decides to make a big pot of chili and uses the last of the chili powder. She doesn’t go to the store to replace the empty spice container. When dad moves back into the marital residence for his week with the kids, he decides to make a dish that calls for chili powder. When he expresses frustration that there is no more chili powder, the kids casually mention that mom made a big pot of chili the previous week. Dad then calls up mom and tells her how self-centered she is for having used up the last of the chili powder and not replacing it.”
Senterfitt notes that this is “a pretty benign example,” but adds, “Imagine if the issue were even more charged? What if dad’s girlfriend spent time at the house and left her bra there? How is mom likely to respond when she finds the unmentionables of her ex’s new squeeze? Sharing a residence creates too many opportunities for parents to trigger one another which will not benefit the children.”
All that said, Senterfitt still does see nesting sometimes pan out successfully for the very short-term.
“The only instances I am aware of in which parents have made nesting work is when it is done on a very time-limited basis (e.g. for the remainder of a child’s senior year in high school) and when the parents have had a very amicable divorce (e.g. they both wanted to end the marriage and are committed to putting the children’s interests ahead of their own),” Senterfitt says. “[But] this describes a very small portion of divorcing couples.”
Nesting not an option? You can still do right by your kids in divorce
Even if you do want to give nesting a try, it’s not always a feasible plan. Money is key (along with figuring out who will maintain the costs of the familial home as well as that additional rotating apartment), as is a supremely calm and committed attitude which calls to mind the “conscious uncoupling” method made famous by Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin in their apparently gracious divorce and co-parenting system.
Nesting or not, consider what you should do to put your children’s well-being and mental health first if divorcing.
“Regardless of how you choose to divorce, being mindful of the potential effects to your kids is crucial,” says Viciere. “Some parents struggle with having difficult but realistic conversations with their kids in an effort to 'protect' them. Contrary to popular belief, you aren't truly protecting your children by avoiding having these conversations. Rather, it hurts them when you aren't being honest about what’s taking place. Kids tend to already have an idea of what’s going on and are quite perceptive of their environments. It's expected that kids will have a hard time with divorce, but if you can be upfront with them about what's happening, and allow them to ask questions and have conversations around how they feel about what’s taking place, it will help in navigating them through the situation.”
Dr. Walfish adds the following tips for the newly divorced or divorcing parents:
- "Keep structure and routine the same in both homes. Maintain the same bedtime, mealtimes, wakeup time, homework schedule and extracurricular activities. The more stable your child's life and routine, the less separation anxiety they will suffer.
- Keep rules, expectations, and consequences the same in both homes. When parents are able to do this effectively we see a reduction of angry behavior and emotional problems in teens.
- Keep their school the same. [If possible] don't also move and change your child's home and school at the same time [as divorcing]. To lose the continuity of the same friends, teachers, campus and overall school environment could be even more traumatic for your child who must adjust to the divorce shakeup.
- Nurture, nourish, and facilitate ongoing relationships for your teen with extended family members. When parents divorce, sometimes kids lose their cousins, aunts and uncles on one or both sides of the family. The more people who love and care about your kids the less painful the divorce will be. Allow your child to be loved by many people.
- Never fight or argue or create a deafening hostile silence with your ex in front of the kids. This is the number one complaint of children of divorced patients of mine.”
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