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Custody Exchange Do’s & Don’ts

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I’ll never forget the first time I did a solo custody exchange. My now-husband was away for a military duty weekend, and I was designated to pick up his daughter from his ex-wife’s apartment.

I’m not sure if anyone else suffers from stepmom anxiety the way I do, but I had no less than a thousand different worries that day. What if I’m late? What if she refuses to exchange with me? What if his daughter is upset? What if I get lost and can’t find the apartment? The list went on and on…

I had been with him a couple of times for pick-up, but I still wasn’t certain I was in the right place until I recognized the wreath she had hanging on her front door. I rang the doorbell and waited…

But no one came. I tried knocking, and still no answer. So I tried calling… no answer.

I called my partner and explained what happened, and when he called his ex-wife, still no answer.

I waited 15 minutes, and just when I had resigned and was getting in my car to leave, the phone rang. She was so sorry they were running late; they’d been for a hike in the park and hadn’t brought her phone along.

It was a doozy of a first solo custody exchange.

Custody Exchange Do’s & Don’ts

To help you have a smooth custody exchange each and every time, follow these child custody exchange rules!

Don’t Make Promises Right Before

If your stepchild is preparing to go to the other parent’s home, it’s not an appropriate time to remind them of the fun things you have planned when they return.

Getting them excited about returning to your home is only going to put a damper on the children’s time with their other parent. No matter what you think or how you feel about the ex, don’t ruin it for your stepchildren.

This is truly one of those times where the golden rule applies. You wouldn’t want your stepchildren talking about how they leave for Disneyland the day they return to their other parent’s home throughout your entire custodial time, right? Then extend the same courtesy to your co-parents.

Do Act Respectfully

No one expects you to be best friends with the ex, but if you are present at the custody exchange, you should absolutely be cordial.

You can say hello and goodbye without any small talk, and it’s entirely possible to do so and not be rude.

Don’t Discuss Parenting Decisions

For a few different reasons, it can be problematic to discuss any parenting topics at pick-up or drop-off.

Primarily, you don’t want the other parent to feel ambushed. When you’re on neutral ground, are expecting to have a conversation, and have had time to prepare, you’re much more receptive to conversations of this nature.

Avoiding discussions during a custody exchange is especially important in high-conflict relationships. The custody exchange is not the time to debate your difference in opinion on the latest disagreement.

If the other parent initiates the discussion, it’s up to you (or your partner, if present) to shut it down until a later time when your stepchildren aren’t present.

There’s nothing wrong with a short and sweet custody exchange: say hi, make sure your stepchild is in the car or house, and say goodbye.

Do Return your Stepchildren’s Belongings

It’s no secret to anyone who shares custody that it can be tricky learning how to transition your stepchildren’s belongings between homes.

Whether it’s that you need a pair of tennis shoes for your stepchild to wear to gym class the next day and they’re at the other parent’s home or you’re looking for a cute top for family pictures and can’t find it because it’s at the other home, sharing belongings between two homes is often a challenge.

Make it easy on your co-parent and return your stepchildren’s clothes and other belongings with every custody exchange!

And while we’re on the subject of clothing…

Don’t Wear Provocative Clothing

I’m not even really talking about a low-cut top as much as I’m referring to something that will provoke your co-parent.

If you’re considering wearing the shirt that says “Mrs.” when you know the ex is bitter that she was never married to your partner or the shirt that says “Mom” even though you’re the stepmom, make the mature choice to leave the passive aggressive clothing at home.

Do Arrive on Time

Be punctual. It was obvious this would be make it onto my list of child custody exchange rules, right?

Sometimes you lose track of time, you get caught in traffic, or an earlier commitment runs late; stuff happens, and your co-parent will understand. Just make sure to communicate if you’re running late.

Generally speaking, aside from occasional hiccups, you should be on time to custody exchanges.

Don’t be a Doormat

If your co-parent is late, you are not required to wait forever. Be where you need to be on time, send a courtesy message or call after about 10 minutes and then if there hasn’t been a response, leave and continue with your day.

We have a rule of 15 minutes max. The other parent can pick up at her convenience (within reason).

Do Write the Custody Agreement Intentionally

When given the opportunity to write or edit your custody agreement, I encourage you to make sure every different custody exchange is clearly laid out in the decree.

This includes: custody exchange locations and time of transition, who can be involved, who is responsible for the majority of the drive, and an alternative plan if the child is out of school for holiday or sickness. Is there a different procedure for school year and summertime custody exchanges? Include it all!

Covering all of the possibilities will save confusion and (hopefully) arguments down the road.

Should Stepparents Attend Custody Exchanges?

One of the questions I receive the most is if stepmoms are overstepping if they attend custody exchanges. It’s not a black and white answer; what works for some blended families won’t work for others.

First, consider why you want to be there. Is it to hold the camera to document the drama? Or do you just want the 1-on-1 time with your partner in the car on the way there? Simply can’t wait another second before you see your stepkids again?

If your motives are pure, and you and the ex are on good terms so it doesn’t cause conflict for you to be present, then go for it!

If your presence will be a distraction and make things harder for your stepchildren or for your partner, consider sitting this one out.

One More Custody Exchange Story

The second time that I was responsible for picking up my stepdaughter from her Mom was the following month during my husband’s military duty. I still had a ton of anxiety about the ordeal, but I tried not to show it.

Her mom texted me earlier in the day and asked if I minded meeting somewhere else, a store much closer to my home, because they’ll be heading back from a birthday dinner.

I told her that was perfect because we were headed to a play place called Going Bonkers in the neighboring town after I picked her up.

When we met up, it was the sweetest thing. Her mom gave her a big hug and said “I’ll see you soon, but I know Kristen has a big surprise planned for you! Something a little… bonkers.”

Her mom chose to get her excited about the transition. She kept the interaction short, respectful, and positive. Instead of telling her daughter she’d miss her, she got her hyped about spending time at her dad’s house.

It was a perfectly easy and peaceful custody exchange.


P.S. Looking for something digital to help you keep track of custody exchange locations and times? We recommend these co-parenting apps!

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