Discipline after divorce

Separation is stressful for kids, but there are ways to help keep them on track

Whether they unleash their inner Picasso on your walls or purposely flush your watch down the toilet, kids will do the darndest things under stress. And when that stress results from divorce, it can be hard to know how to discipline them — you’re guilt-ridden, exhausted and arguing with your ex about how to parent. These five golden rules will help you navigate the stormy seas of separation.

Start with talking

Not sure if Bobby hit his baby sister because she was drooling on his favourite Hot Wheels car or because he’s angry at Daddy for leaving? Try asking him. Children five years and older are often able to tell you how they’re feeling, and when they do, they’re less likely to express their frustrations by misbehaving. Your child may need to talk several times before he feels relief, so it’s a good idea to check in with him every so often to see how he’s coping. If he has trouble talking, you could try reading books or watching movies about divorce together. It may help open up the issues behind his behaviour. With younger kids, drawing, painting and using playdough together are good ways to get feelings on the table. In some cases, it may help to see a therapist.

Daycare workers, teachers and relatives can also provide insight. Ask them what they see in your child’s behaviour and how they think he’s doing. You can always confirm their suspicions by asking your child directly.

Though you sympathize with your child’s struggles, it’s important to maintain behavioural standards. “You need to continue to set the limits you normally would,” says Andrea Litvack, a professor of social work at the University of Toronto. “But don’t make your love conditional on your children’s behaviour. Never threaten that they’re going to have to live at the other parent’s house.” Many kids are already scared you’ll leave them like you and your ex left the marriage.

No means no

It’s easy to fall into the “yes” trap after a divorce. You feel guilty about what the kids are going through, so you do the dishes for them. You’re exhausted from single parenting, so you allow the “no TV after eight” rule to slip to nine o’clock, and then 10 to avoid another argument. But in the end, this lenient lifestyle isn’t helping anyone.

Martha Smith, a mom of two from Schomberg, Ont., ended up with eight cats after her divorce. Even though she hates the creatures, she caved in when each of her kids asked for one. And when she found out one of them was pregnant, she just couldn’t refuse to keep the kittens. It took weeks before she found the strength to give them away. “Saying ‘yes’ put a smile on the kids’ faces,” she said, “but I had turned a blind eye to the fact that the happiness lasted about five minutes, and then I had to deal with changing kitty litter.”

While it’s important to stick to the rules, you don’t have to be a tyrant. “Be realistic in your goals,” says Anita Pal, a marriage and family therapist in Barrie, Ont. Your kids are going to be unsettled for the first while, getting used to their new situation. So give them a bit of a break on small things, like cleaning their rooms, but don’t let the big ones, like doing their homework or keeping curfew, slide.

Mind your own manners

It’s easier said than done, but the better your relationship with your ex-spouse, the happier and better behaved your children will be. So do your best to be on time for school pickup and volleyball practice, and to hear him out when he has something to say. “Treating your ex in a respectful way lessens the chance of acrimony and models positive behaviour for the children,” says Litvack. Relating to your ex with animosity, on the other hand, creates a stressful environment for your child.

Kelly McCarthy, a Whitby, Ont., mom of three, never says a bad word about her ex in front of her kids. And while she wishes they ate dinner earlier at their dad’s house, she realizes fighting with him about such a small thing isn’t going to help down the road. “To deal with bigger issues, you need a good working relationship,” she says.

If you just can’t communicate with your ex, try writing in a log instead. Record everything in a notebook and stick it in your child’s overnight bag, or email a file back and forth. (But be careful what you write online, where tone can easily be misinterpreted.) This way, you can share important information about your children — your son’s latest math test, your daughter’s argument with her best friend — in a non-blaming way. You can also mention things like the fact that you already paid for Friday’s pizza lunch. As a last resort, you can turn to a professional mediator for help.

Be consistent

Routine is important for all kids. From making their beds in the morning to turning off the computer at seven, knowing what to expect provides kids with comfort. Plus, says Pal, “predictable structure and routines will help decrease acting-out behaviours.”

Here’s the hitch — with divorce come separate houses with different rules. How many times have you heard “At Mom’s house I’m allowed to…”? And how can you argue with your ex’s rules when you’re not living together? Your best bet is to make it clear to your kids that when they’re with you, they must abide by your rules (“At Mommy’s house you may be able to eat cookies before dinner, but at my house, you eat dinner first”). And stay consistent. Don’t let kids do things you don’t agree with (like watching violent movies) just because your ex-spouse does.

When kids break a rule, choose the consequence wisely. “Do not rely on discipline strategies (for example, a week-long grounding) that require the other parent’s participation,” says Pal. It’s unrealistic to expect your ex to co-operate, especially if he doesn’t get to spend a lot of time with the kids to begin with.

Book quality time

Sometimes divorced parents act like children themselves, competing for their kids’ attention. This can be especially true for the parent who spends less time with them. The thinking is “This is my weekend and I want to do fun things with you,” says Litvack. But this type of attitude can backfire, especially with teenagers. No matter how infrequent your visits are, a 14-year-old is probably going to want to spend more time with her friends than with you. So, just as you would have done pre-separation, save quality outings for appropriate times (for instance, don’t buy theatre tickets on a Friday night when she already has plans) and give your kids space when they need it. Above all, remember that you’re still a parent. Just because you only see the kids for a couple of days a week or even a month, don’t shy away from disciplining them. If you have to cancel an outing to the amusement park as a result of their poor behaviour, then do it.

Keep in mind…

Many rules of discipline are the same whether you’re divorced or not. But when your family is going through a painful separation, it’s important to step back and analyze your child’s behaviour as well as your own discipline strategies. Your kids are going through a rough time emotionally. They need to know that, no matter what, they still have a family — two parents who love them, and a safe and secure environment to live in.

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