As a child psychologist, I know how hard it is to tell your child that they have to spend their summer vacation with their noncustodial parent. I have assisted with these kinds of conversations a lot over the years and it never gets any easier. Whether it is for a few weeks or a few months, this is going to be a difficult conversation to have with your child.
When the custody schedule is anything other than a 50/50 arrangement (giving one parent primary physical custody and the other parent limited visitation rights) this creates a "home base" for the child at the primary parent's house. This can have some advantages for the child, but it also makes the other parent's house feel strange.
It's natural for kids to want to spend their summer break at their "home base," especially as they get older and more involved in a social circle. In addition, kids like the familiarity of the primary parent's rules, routine, and environment, so suggesting that they leave their comfort zone and spend a significant amount of time at a strange house is a big deal to kids.
Unfortunately, custody schedules dictated by lawyers and court systems often do not take into account what the child prefers, and they are required to follow the dictate of the pre-arranged custody arrangement. Whether or not you agree with the custody arrangement, there are several ways the primary parent can help their kids with this transition.
1. Be positive. Your attitude rubs off on your child. If you act like this will be a good experience for your child, then they just might start to think that too.
2. Be understanding but firm. If you are wishy washy, your child will get their hopes up that they might not have to go. Unless there is a good chance that the court will change the custody order or your ex will agree to let your child stay with you, it's best that you don't create doubt with your child. The more firm you are about the decision, the faster your child will get on board with the idea too.
3. Listen to your child's concerns and try to turn them into a positive. It will help for your child to talk about their feelings, but don't get tempted to turn the conversation into an opportunity to bash your ex. Try to keep your personal feelings of your ex's role as your previous romantic partner separate from their current role as your child's parent. Try to turn your child's objections about the visitation into a positive way they can bond with your ex.
4. Answer all of their questions honestly. Be honest with your child about how long they will be away and if you know any details about your ex's plans with your child (i.e. if they will be vacationing or seeing extended family members), but don't get too honest. They don't need to know your negative feelings about your ex's parents or sister, for instance.
5. Prepare your child for any difficult feelings that they might have while they are away from you. Make sure they know when you will call them each day and for how long you will talk with them. Having daily contact with your child will be helpful, but don't use the conversations to make them feel bad that they are not with you. Make sure your child brings a comfort item (stuffed animal, special pillow, etc.) with them so that they can use the comfort item to help them feel better if they get sad.
6. Encourage your child to speak to your ex if they get sad or scared. Let them know that your ex's job is to take care of them and protect them, just like that is your job, too. You might not be 100% sure that your ex will handle every situation just like you would (for example, your ex might not rub your child's back until they fall asleep when they get scared in the middle of the night), but your ex should be able to handle all of the important stuff. Communicate this to your child.
7. Explain the reasoning behind visiting your ex, even if you do not agree with it. Above all, the reason your child is spending time with your ex is because kids who have a warm, positive relationship with both of their parents tend to fare better overall. Your ex might not have been a great romantic partner for you, but they can still be a good partner for your child. By allowing your child the opportunity to bond with their other parent, you are doing your child a huge favor.
If you have this difficult conversation with your child early and often before they leave for your ex's house, they should be pretty prepared. On the day your ex comes to pick up your child, be positive and brave for your child's sake. Above all, remember that this could be a great summer visit for your child and having the opportunity to bond with their other parent could lead to a better future for your child.