Co-authored by journalist Sara Au
As difficult as breaking the news can be, managing your child's behavior during and after a separation or divorce can be extremely challenging.
Of utmost importance is remaining on civil terms with your ex-spouse, because ongoing parental conflict following a divorce is one of the strongest predictors of negative outcomes for kids.
This is emblematic of how important it is for parents to role model good behavior to your children. But we know how hard it can be to stay civil in the midst of your feelings of sadness, betrayal, and/or possibly anger. This is why it's important to your kids for you to rise above those feelings.
Here's the psychology behind it:
Let's say your child is expected to live primarily with and love Mom, but see Dad on weekends and love him as well. If each of you says horrible things about the other, your child is then caught in the middle of an impossible situation, or, worse, forced to feel like he has to choose between you. That child is liable to be left feeling vulnerable and unstable in both homes, and this could affect his behavior, his emotions, his grades, capacity for relationships in the future--everything. Every child deserves the richness of a close relationship with both parents, whenever possible.
The psychological ramifications of a separation or divorce can often manifest in a child as negative behavior. In addition to maintaining civility, here are 6 tips for behavior management:
• Keep the limits and rules at each home as similar as possible, though they don't need to be exactly the same. Kids can get used to different rules at different places as long as they are consistent in each. Give them good, specific directions when you want them to do something and enforce limits and rules at your own home. If needed, coach them on how to adjust to the rules when they are with their other parent.
• Maintain normalcy. Try to keep to your typical schedule and activities as much as possible and make sure they stay on track with schoolwork. Continue to hold them accountable for their actions, as well as institute punishments as you would have before. You can ease up a bit, especially in the immediate aftermath of the divorce announcement, or during key points in the process (when you or your ex moves out, if one of you gets remarried, etc...) because you know there's more behind their behavior at that point. Talk them through your expectations throughout any of these situations, and if they don't listen, institute the negative consequence that you would have had there not been a divorce.
• Avoid the urge to overindulge your children. Whether due to guilt, pity, or shame some parents let all routines and requirements for their children fall away. It may be tempting, because none of us likes to see our children suffer, and alleviating anything that we can control that causes pain or hardship may seem like the right thing to do. But this approach communicates only messages of fragility, incompetence, or doubt about their ability to get through this difficult situation. While kids may outwardly enjoy not having limits or rules, they'll pick up on these unconscious messages we send and internalize them.
• Reprioritize your expectations. After a life-changing event like a separation or divorce, it's natural to reevaluate things, and that should definitely include your way of parenting. Perhaps you parented in a certain way because of your spouse, but you're now able to parent differently. There are likely to be some behaviors in your child that you now choose to ignore because they aren't a priority in your parenting plan, and that's okay... just try to ease into it a little.
• Recognize the symptoms of stress. Remember that children often express emotion through their behavior. A change in behavior is most often a key indicator of stress, so look for whether your child starts complaining all the time about having a stomach ache, avoiding activities they used to enjoy, emotional changes, plummeting grades, increased fears or changes in sleep.
• Make sure you tell them to watch their language and remain respectful, but let your kids form their own opinion of your ex. Some parents seem to need their children to believe, like they do, that their ex is a lying, cheating snake. If you feel like that, try to find some adult outlet for commiseration. Kids should have the opportunity to develop an opinion of their parent that is based on their individual relationship and the actions of that parent toward the child, as long as they aren't dangerous or damaging. As your kids mature into teens or adults who have to forge their own relationships, what they observe and learn from you both - positive and negative - will serve them well.
While these tips will help you avoid some behavioral problems, it is unfortunately impossible to completely escape negative reactions to the breakup of the family. For this reason, redouble your efforts at cultivating a positive relationship with your child, which will underscore the security and solid foundation of this changed family unit.