How our children cope with divorce is front and foremost for many parents. None of us want our children to be harmed by the end of our marriage and their well-being can be a major influence on the timing of divorce.
I’m a big believer that children can absolutely thrive after divorce. I also don’t believe that parenting after divorce is by definition harder than parenting while married. There are definitely differences after divorce which can add complications and these do make parenting post-split different, but not necessarily harder.
Many people have told me they became a better parent after divorce.
So how do you handle the most common parenting problems after divorce?
This is the topic for this episode of Conversations About Divorce and I’m joined by Dr. Erica Reischer, psychologist, parent educator and author of What Great Parents Do: 75 Simple Strategies For Raising Kids Who Thrive. Listen in or keep reading …
Communication Is Key
If you and your ex had disagreements over parenting while you were married, the bad news is that those disagreements are likely to continue. And if you didn’t disagree because one of you made concessions to the other, then the disagreements are likely to become more apparent. Getting divorced doesn’t make those disagreements magically disappear.
Reischer advises clients that they are going to be a part of each other’s lives forever so it’s worthwhile investing in finding a way to manage your relationship. Communication becomes more important post-divorce.
In a perfect world, you and your child’s other parent would be aligned on your values, ideals and expectations. You’re not likely to be perfectly aligned but the closer you are, the easier it is going to be for you to parent together and support each other as your children grow up.
When you’re not aligned, there’s likely to be significant inconsistencies between you and your ex’s approach to parenting. “The more inconsistency there is about challenging behavior, such as rule-breaking , the harder it is going to be to establish and maintain rules, ” says Reischer.
If your respective parenting philosophies make consistency between you impossible, then “the most important thing is that each parent be consistent so your child will know what to expect of you,” says Reischer.
Don’t Expect Your Child To Take Sides
While you may disagree with your ex’s parenting style, Reischer and many experts recommend maintaining a neutral stance. “Don’t be judgmental, or bad-mouth the other parent to kids because it puts the child in the difficult position of feeling that they are expected to take a side.”
In practical terms, that means resisting the temptation to make unsolicited assessments about your ex’s parenting to your child and when your child does make an unfavorable comment, it means exercising restraint, not criticizing your ex. Instead, ask your child why they disagree with it, what they think would be more reasonable and then coach your child to advocate for themselves with their other parent.
Intervening on your child’s behalf is sometimes necessary but often not straight-forward because it’s easy to make the other parent feel defensive. Acknowledging and accepting your ex’s different approach may be helpful.
“It sometimes happens that kids appear to take sides but what I often find is that when those kids grow up and are adults, they are very resentful of the parent they felt they had to take sides with,” says Reischer.
Know Your Triggers
It’s almost inevitable that there will be a time when your child is being disciplined by your ex in a way with which you disagree. Should you keep quiet? Should you intervene? There’s no hard and fast rules here but Reischer says your discomfort may have little to do with your ex.
“A lot of times, it has more to with our own expectations, our own deeper needs, our own feelings about what that means and a lot of times if we can talk about that, it can cut through some of the details,” explains Reischer.
This means take some time for reflection before reacting. It means digging deep to find the underlying reason for your discomfort and then reassessing your feelings about the discipline incident. What’s really going on here?
Kids Are Curious
When my kids were young, I took a couple of Love & Logic parenting classes which I found very helpful. I liked their approach of allowing your child to experience the natural consequence of their action rather a created consequence. So for example, a child that doesn’t follow a teacher’s instructions may lose their recess time or have detention. A child that doesn’t get up in time to catch the school bus and then has to wait for you to leave for work to drop them off at school, may be late for school and incur the consequences for that.
Reischer advises using consequences sparingly. She says they are not the best way to get kids to follow the rules. “A lot of time what looks like bad behavior, especially in younger kids, is exploration, experimentation or curiosity. Even when kids are ignoring us or arguing with us, that can seem like defiant behavior but it’s much more helpful to see as being curious.”
Looking at behavior through a lens of curiosity gives us patience to respond in a way that doesn’t escalate or make the situation worse. And when you do give consequences, be sure to keep them in proportion to the misbehavior and not based on how you feel.
Set Consequences You Can Enforce
When it is necessary to have consequences, the best ones arise from the situation and that fit the misbehavior. For example, if your child uses your credit card without your permission the consequence is different for a first offense which may have unintended than a second offense.
Reischer reminds parents that you don’t have to give consequences on the spot. It’s better to take some time and think through what will be most appropriate. “You want it to be fair, you want it to be reasonable, you want it to be effective and that you can and will follow through. You lose credibility when you don’t follow through,” says Reischer.
For many divorced parents, appropriate consequences means not expecting your ex to enforce the consequence especially if your parenting philosophies are different. With shared parenting time that can be a challenge because you don’t want the consequence to lose its impact due to an absence from your home. Neither do you want to forget to enforce it when your child returns from their other parent.
Speaking from personal experience, there will be times when the support of your ex in enforcing a consequence is very important so when your ex does occasionally reach out to you for support, give it the appropriate consideration.
Change Yourself First
One of the challenges I see post-divorce is when a child is behaving in some challenging ways with Parent A and Parent B states emphatically that the child doesn’t do that at their home. The implication, even if not expressed is that Parent A is doing something wrong and Parent A reacts feeling judged and criticized.
Reischer says this is a difficult situation for both parents. It can be risky for Parent A to open up and share what is happening while Parent B needs to respond skillfully to avoid shutting down the communication.
“It’s very tempting to look at what our kids do wrong and see the solution as fixing something in them but a lot of times we are inadvertently contributing to our kids behavior, often in ways we are unaware of,” says Reischer.
For example, when a child constantly interrupts it might be because we stop and answer them. Reischer says that how we respond can promote a behavior or change it.
When you’re struggling with a behavior, Reischer recommends talking to a close family member or friend, someone you trust, who you know will give you honest input and will help you brainstorm a solution. This could also be a professional.
If your ex does approach you about your child’s behavior, the best response starts with showing empathy and understanding for how that is making your ex feel. That lays the foundation for creating a safe place where your ex knows they won’t be judged.
Be A Whole Parent
A common reaction to divorce is to lower your expectations for your children, make allowances for unacceptable behavior because of the upset from the divorce and to compensate with “treats” such as material belongings or expensive outings and activities.
Reischer says this reaction comes from a place of love and is understandable. In the short term, it makes the parent feel good but in the long run, it’s problematic. “Each parent needs to have a warm and loving relationship and also discipline, if necessary. You don’t want to just be the fun parent. That will take away from your relationship with your child eventually. You need to be a whole parent.”
Dr. Erica Reischer is a California-based psychologist, parent educator and author of What Great Parents Do: 75 Simple Strategies For Raising Kids Who Thrive. Learn more about Dr. Reischer’s work at her website, DrEricaR.com.