The Do’s and Don’ts of Divorce for Parents

Divorce is a very complex occurrence that takes place within the family. This article will not attempt to cover all of the many nuances and intricacies involved in dealing with children who are experiencing a divorce. There are therapists who deal specifically with divorces as well as many books written on the effects of divorce on children and on parents. Many towns have programs committed to working with children of divorced families, which can be very effective in helping kids come to terms with what’s going on. All of these options should be considered. I hope this article will offer some useful ideas, but I want to stress the fact that it is not meant as a substitute for a broader understanding of divorce and its effect on parents and children.

Being structured and clear after a divorce is much more helpful to kids than compromising your values because your children are going through a tough time.

There are as many types of divorces as there are types of families, and each family creates their own little theater in which the divorce is acted out. For some families, divorce emanates from the adults not being able to get along, solve problems or communicate effectively. In other families, the divorce is the recognition that things are not working for the good of everyone involved. In certain families, divorce is a way to get out of an abusive or destructive relationship, in which case those children ultimately benefit psychologically, even though they will still face fears and even feel loyalty toward the offending parents.

The reason why a divorce is very traumatic for the children involved is because things are changing for them completely and the future is unknown. The most powerful people in their lives have decided to go on a completely different course. Kids use their parents to manage their fears of the unknown. When kids get anxious about the future, they have an unconscious mechanism that tells them their parents will take care of whatever it is that’s bothering them. They do this often and without thinking about it. Divorce can be considered traumatic because it overpowers the children involved. They don’t have the tools or the experience to manage the overwhelming feelings and changes that are happening in their lives. They tend to deal with them in different ways, depending upon what the personality and nature of the child is. “Fear” is often the core feeling they have: Fear that they’re going to lose things they have, and fear that they’re not going to have things they want. What you’ll see in some cases is that one child will buckle down and do OK in school, and the other child will give up and stop working. These two very different reactions may even occur in the same family. What that means is that one child is dealing with his fear and insecurity through isolating, while the other child is focusing on external things like schoolwork and sports. Some children deal with their fear and anger by acting their emotions out and striking out at others. One withdraws into the fort; the other goes out to meet the enemy.

The major emotions involved with divorce are fear, anger, and grief. The general fear for children is that things are changing and they don’t know what they’re changing into. The anger is that they have no control or power over the situation. And grief emanates from the very real fact that the family they knew has perished. It’s as if it died, and they must, over time, grieve that family. As a parent, you will see the behaviors that characterize anger, fearfulness and grief. The anger might be viewed through verbal or physical acting out, through increased oppositionality and defiance, behavioral acting out in school, or anger and frustration taken out on other siblings or the residing parent. The fearfulness manifests itself through a process of shutting down. Kids will isolate emotionally and physically, spending more time in their rooms or out of the house. They may appear more secretive. They are withdrawing into themselves because of some instinctual feeling they have that this is the best way to protect themselves. And you’ll see kids act out the stages of grief. They may bargain with their parents and try to figure out how to keep them together, they’ll be in denial about the significance of the divorce; they’ll be angry about what it means to them and eventually, if it’s a healthy grieving process, they’ll come to accept it, but that takes time and work. No matter how the kids handle the divorce, they generally don’t want to talk about it to either parent, which creates problems for parents who desperately want their children to understand what’s going on from their perspective.

Kids draw their strength from a variety of sources, but most of all from their parents and their family system. When kids are younger, their parents and family are their sole source of strength. As they develop, school performance, friends and sports become sources of strength, depending upon the individual child. So the first thing parents have to understand is that when the divorce is announced, the kids are going to experience a lot of insecurity about what the future holds. Parents may also feel that insecurity themselves, but they feel empowered to manage it. Children are completely dependent. It’s a sad fact that many children go into poverty after a divorce because the money that used to support one household is now going to support two. The biggest cause of poverty among single parent families in America is divorce. So it puts fear in children. They wonder “What’s going to happen to my parents? Are we going to have enough food? Will I have clothes? Can I still go to the mall on Fridays? Will we be able to do the same things?” These questions all float around in the kids’ heads. Some fears have to do with the well-being of the parents and of the family, and some are age appropriately self-centered. And parents will do well to focus on these things when they talk to the child about the divorce.

Develop a Culture of Accountability in Your Home
Single parents have to develop a culture of accountability in their home once the separation or divorce has taken place. A “culture of accountability” position is one that says, “You are still accountable for your behavior here at home.” So no matter what else is going on outside the house or whatever feelings the child is having, including those that come from legitimate sources, the child is responsible for his or her behavior. Being structured and clear after a divorce is much more helpful to kids than compromising your values because your children are going through a tough time. Remember, it’s during tough times that we need reliable structure the most. Limits, accountability, parental support, outside support when necessary—these are all part of a culture of accountability in the family. Kids experience a whole range of emotions when a separation and divorce occur. Remember that “divorce” and “separation” are legalistic terms. Once one parent moves out, the kids’ adverse emotional experience begins, no matter how it’s labeled.

Have structure that clearly sets out the responsibilities of each child, outline the way they have to treat each other and the way they have to treat you as the parent. Make sure the limits are clear. Issues such as curfews, use of phone, computer and TV time, expectations around schoolwork and other commitments should all be kept very clear. Hold kids accountable for not meeting their responsibilities. And don’t let things slide because of your divorce. You certainly don’t have to be punitive, but you have to be consistent. Be available to your kids if they want to talk about the divorce or any other subject, and let them know you’re available to talk about things without specifically citing the divorce. Seek outside support when necessary. Certain types of counseling can be very helpful to kids who are experiencing the feelings of grief after a divorce. Also, if children are older and they test the limits by being physical or threatening, do not hesitate to call the police. There are many situations where kids sense a vacuum of power, and they will try to fill it if the parent does not. This can be especially troublesome in families where there is an adolescent, or families where the children don’t reside with the parent who was the primary limit-setter.

Do’s and Don’ts of Parenting after a Divorce
There are many “do’s” and “don’ts” for parents after a divorce, but here are a few that I think are crucial:

  • Don’t push kids to talk about the divorce if they don’t want to. Be inviting, but not demanding. Let them know there are other resources available to them outside of the family.
  • Do hold kids accountable for their behavior. If kids are acting out, be clear with them. Let them know that even if they’re acting out because of the divorce, they’ll still be held accountable for their behavior.
  • Don’t talk negatively about the other parent. It’s never a good idea.
  • Don’t jump into another relationship and expect kids to be accepting of that person. That may soothe your sense of loss, but for kids, it’s only confusing and frustrating
  • Don’t try to have deep, meaningful conversations with your kids about the divorce. They may act “adultified,” but they are not little adults.
  • Do acknowledge that things have changed.
  • Don’t share all your fear, anxiety, anger resentment or grief with your children. They’re not at a level of development where they can handle that. Often, it makes them feel like they have to take care of you, and that’s not a good position for them to be in.
  • Do family organizational planning and structuring without emotions. Sit down and let kids know what roles are going to change. Don’t do it democratically. Don’t ask for opinions or votes. It’s not helpful to kids to put that responsibility on them.

“Dad lets me do it at his house.”
As I mentioned, a single parent has to develop the culture of accountability in their household. What happens at mom’s house or dad’s house is none of your business, except in cases of safety. Do not let it become part of your child’s alibi system. When your son or daughter says, “Dad lets me do this at his house,” tell them that they’ll have to wait until they get back to Dad’s house until they do it again, because in your home there are consequences for that behavior. You may feel frustrated with the way your ex parents your children, but don’t try to control what goes on in the other parent’s home. That’s a dead end street. There are many situations where parents cooperate with each other after the separation or divorce, but let’s face it, people divorce because they don’t like each other any more, so cooperation can only go so far.

Another issue is that many ex-spouses tell their children details of the marriage that you would rather they didn’t know. This is a common occurrence and parents have to work on not giving it power. First of all, if you show your child that this information has power over you, that child is going to use it in certain situations. So the idea is to say something like, “Whatever your mother says at her house, just discuss it with her. This is not a place to talk about it.” I personally don’t think you should discuss specifics about the divorce. I think you should say, “That’s Mom’s opinion. You’ll have to talk to her about that. In my house, I don’t blame your mother, and I don’t let her blame me.” Understand this: Separation and divorce usually don’t occur or don’t emanate from a peaceful, easygoing marital situation. There are often occurrences such as strong arguments and fights, blaming, cursing, and bad feelings which precede the actual separation or divorce. For better or worse, kids have witnessed what’s occurred and they will know the truth. Parents who use the “Culture of Accountability” model teach kids that using excuses and blaming others does not justify their inappropriate or irresponsible behavior.

If you teach your children not to make excuses and not to justify inappropriate behavior, they will be better prepared to identify when the other parent is using excuses and justifications to explain their behavior.

When is family counseling in order?
Family counseling is a very tricky issue. Some therapists will say that it should not include both parents because it is artificial, and helps kids promote the normal fantasy that their parents will get back together. On the other hand, there are therapists who believe that even if there’s a divorce, the family should address it as a whole system. There are a lot of variables that come into play when deciding which course to take with which therapist. One thing is clear—your child should have the option of seeing someone, but they should not be forced to if they’re managing the divorce effectively. If your child is having behavior problems which either stem from or are intensified by the divorce, the help should be based on him or her learning to manage the problems and feelings underlying the behavior.

Therapy should be flexible enough to involve everyone in various combinations, but still avoid involving sessions with both the parents and the children present unless absolutely necessary. Before those sessions, strict ground rules and agendas must be agreed upon by both parents. Remember, it is very likely the differences in perception, interpretation, and behaviors which led to the divorce in the first place could be acted out in the artificial situation. In some cases, kids will not want to participate in these types of therapeutic activities. If kids are managing the divorce and the other areas of their life well, they should not be pushed to be involved. On the other hand, if they’re having behavioral or academic performance problems, behavior management therapy should be on the menu.

Divorce carries an inherent risk of damage to the children involved. The more quickly the adults going through the divorce take responsibility for being parents instead of spouses, the better the chances the children will have of adjusting to the new reality of their lives.

Common Discipline Mistakes

Some of the most common discipline mistakes parents make and how to avoid them:

Losing Your Temper

When you habitually yell at your children, they can end up yelling back at you. Children are actually more responsive to calm requests and commands.

Disagreeing on Rules

Never disagree on discipline in front of your children. Parents must present a united front to their kids when enforcing rules. Otherwise, they will quickly learn how to “divide and conquer.”

Treating Children as Small Adults

Although you want your children to know that they are heard, you shouldn’t make the mistake of letting them have an equal say in the rules of the household. This is a parent/child relationship, not a democracy. As children get older, parents can explain the reasoning behind their decisions.


Bribery is not a healthy or effective form of motivation for children. You want your children to learn right from wrong regardless of whether or not there is a reward for behaving in an appropriate way.

Unhealthy Praise

Be careful of praising your children too much or too little. Appropriate praise can be healthy and build self-esteem, but if overused, it can leave a child feeling inadequate when he/she doesn’t receive it. Give affirmation for positive behavior and hopefully, your child will repeat the good behaviors that bring appreciation.

Inconsistent Discipline

It’s important that parents are consistent with discipline in order to avoid making their children confused about guidelines and consequences. For example, if action A leads to consequence B, it needs to do so all of the time.

Inappropriate Punishment

The punishment should be a natural and logical consequence of the punishable behavior. If the punishment isn’t fair, you can lose the opportunity to “teach” your child through the act of disciplining because your child’s focus will be on the unfair punishment.

Losing Your Temper with Your Child? 8 Steps to Help You Stay in Control

Do you ever struggle with temper tantrums at your house? You know what they involve: yelling, screaming, bad-language, and all-out loss of control until you almost can’t take it anymore and you just want to….put yourself in time out. Yes, I’m talking about our own parental “temper tantrums,” which we’ve all been known to experience at one point or another as we raise our kids. Read on for tips on how to stay in control.

The first step to look at is why you lose your temper. Understanding your triggers as an adult is just as important as trying to figure out what sets your kids off.

Children are notorious for bringing out the best in us as parents. There are moments when we find we are better people because of them; we may model better behavior, be more honest, forgiving, caring, and kind. And, then there are those moments when our kids bring out the very worst in us. These are the times when we are exhausted, overworked, stressed to levels we never knew existed — and the next thing we know we are no calmer than a toddler, yelling and screaming, red-faced and enraged. Here’s the truth: losing your temper is a fact of life, one that is very normal, although upsetting, when it happens. But, there are solutions that can help you stay calm and regain control. Follow these eight steps and you should be able to see a change in your approach very soon.

Step 1: Recognize your triggers.
The first step to look at is why you lose your temper. Understanding our triggers as adults is just as important as trying to figure out what sets our kids off so that we can help them control themselves. Sometimes a bad attitude can trigger you.  When a child begins with negativity or backtalk, it’s important to take a step back and really focus on how you are feeling at the moment: does your neck tense up, your cheeks feel flushed, and, or do you have a hot temper yourself? By recognizing emotional triggers as well as the physical sensations in your body that are associated with them, you are better-equipped to say, “Okay, I know that I’m not going down a good path. Stop.”  Some triggers at your house might include your toddler saying “No!” for the one-hundredth time that day, your middle school child rolling her eyes at you, or your high schooler failing to do their chores……again. When you are able to recognize what frustrates you the most, you are on the path to stopping your temper from boiling over.

Step 2: Find new ways to communicate.
For most parents, what we feel the worst about after we lose it, is how we’ve talked to our child. Too often parents fall into bad communication habits we learned from our own parents when we were growing up. These can include giving our kids the silent treatment, withdrawing from the family, giving overly harsh punishments in the heat of the moment, yelling, saying snide or sarcastic remarks, swearing and name calling. It’s very easy to fall into this pattern, especially when you have a toddler screaming at you or a teenager swearing and getting in your face. But again, it’s important to remember that you are modeling how to deal with anger and frustration for your child, not just in their childhood and adolescence, but, for when they are adults as well. This is not to say that you can’t express anger, disappointment, or frustration with your child. Sometimes it’s important that our kids know we aren’t happy, but we have to find ways to express our feelings in an appropriate manner. When you are feeling overwhelmed and afraid, you might resort to less-than-helpful ways to communicate your frustration, finding a way to stay calm is key.

Step 3: Find your strategies to calm.
Finding a calming strategy that works for you can stop you from losing your temper.  Some ideas are:

  •  Walk away (literally): When you find you are about to lose it, walk away from your child.  Not only does this prevent you from starting down the wrong path, it models for your child an appropriate response when they are feeling overwhelmed themselves. For older kids, feel free to say, “You know, I’m not ready to talk to you about this right now so I’m going to be alone for a few moments until I can calm down.”
  •  Practice deep breathing: There were many times when I stopped mid-sentence, sat down and used deep breathing to calm myself. This makes teenagers nuts, but it really works. While sitting upright, place both feet on the floor. Place one hand on your abdomen beneath your rib cage. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose into the bottom of your lungs, sending the air as low down as you can.  Make sure you are breathing from your abdomen instead of shallow breathing from your chest. If you are breathing from your abdomen, your hand should actually rise and your chest should move only slightly while your abdomen expands. When you’ve taken in a full breath, make sure to pause momentarily and then slowly exhale through your nose or mouth, whichever is most comfortable, making sure you exhale fully. Practice doing ten full abdominal breaths until you are calm again.
  •  Count backwards: Before opening your mouth to respond, consider counting backwards towards calmness, until you are in a different place. Whether you’re driving, making dinner or trying to relax at the end of a hard day, a perfect way to stay calm and stop your anger dead in its tracks is to begin with a number that’s higher than your stress level. For some people this can be 100, for others it might be as simple as going from 10-0. Whatever number you choose, this exercise buys you time before doing or saying something you’ll regret.
  •  Long-term strategies: For longer-term calming practices, integrate physical exercise into your weekly routine.  We are all busy, overworked, and short on time, but one way to be the best parent possible is to practice self-care. This can come in the form of yoga, meditation, praying, running, biking or simply walking.

Step 4: Communicate calmly.
Healthy communication relies on both you and your child being calm, so do not approach them if they are still raging at you or you are still too angry to talk. For both young children, as well as adolescents, keep your comments brief and to the point.

“I really don’t appreciate it when I come home from work and you haven’t done any of your chores. Please do them now.”

“I don’t like it when you take your brother’s toys and make him cry. The consequence for that is that your train now is in time-out for 20 minutes, while you practice better behavior.”

“You know the rule in our house is completing homework before television. No more TV for the night.”

When you are finished, move on to something else. Don’t dwell on what just happened.

Step 5: Choose Your Battles.
Too often our own tantrums are born out of parents feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, so it’s important to not put yourself in a position of feeling chronically overwhelmed by getting upset over every little annoying thing your child does. One way to combat this is to really think hard about what is important to try to enforce and what you can just let go of in regards to your child. For younger kids, there are a lot of daily behaviors that can be frustrating: at this age, kids are messy, they cry easily, they have meltdowns, and they can be grouchy. Middle school and high school-age kids are messy, can be moody, irresponsible and unfocused. Pinpoint what your family values are and decide what to tackle. Is it important that your child completes chores, has a semi-clean room, and is respectful? If so, then make it clear what your expectations are and let the rest (the occasional mess, the roll of the eyes, the moody/grouchy behavior) roll off your back.

Step 6: Apologize when you are wrong.
One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is knowing when to admit you’ve done something wrong and apologizing. Some parents struggle with this, thinking that if they do this, they are giving up their power or showing weakness. But, ask yourself what it is you want to teach your child about grown-up relationships. Surely, we want our kids to know when they’ve wronged someone and teach them the importance of an apology. There’s nothing more powerful than a parent admitting their faults and offering a sincere apology. Modeling this type of humility shows a child that we are all human and that even parents make mistakes.

Step 7: Find Support.
Pick trusted friends or family members who will support you through your parenting years. Find like-minded parents who you feel safe confiding in when you’ve exploded and feel ashamed or guilty. Make sure you nurture these relationships so you have a sounding board (and can return the favor) when you are at your wit’s end.  Important:  Do not divulge your worst parenting moments to other parents or family members who are judgmental, or who express shock or dismay at your momentary lapse in parenting judgment. These people will only make you feel worse about yourself and will suck the energy out of you.

Step 8: Be Kind to Yourself.
And last of all, practice self-care by being kind and forgiving toward yourself. Parents are harder on themselves than any other group of individuals. This is born out of intense feelings of love and concern for our kids, as well as the desire to get it all right all the time. But, there’s no such thing as a perfect parent who does it all right, all the time. Most of us are lucky if we can get through the day being a “good enough” parent. Whether you lose your temper once or twenty times, acknowledge to yourself that you’ve made mistakes, and commit to doing better in the future. Acknowledge that you aren’t perfect, that you may have future tantrums, but that you are human and fallible. Forgive yourself for past indiscretions and move forward with the goal that you will start each day aiming to try your best, forgiving yourself if you weren’t great, and praising yourself when you find you are parenting at your best.

Parent the child you have, not the child you wish you had.”

The Seven Tools for Purposeful Parenting

 Tool 1: Parenting with Purpose

One of the most important and exciting decisions you can make as a parent is to define success goals for your child. Choosing, communicating and pursuing clear and age-appropriate goals for your child will give them a sense of purpose that brings them the experience of mastering their world as they achieve the designated benchmarks in their lives. Your definition of success for your child must reflect your child’s interests, skills and abilities and not just yours.

Two possible goals to consider are socialization and authenticity. Socialization means helping your child to become a responsible citizen, learning how to work in harmony with other people and to develop intimate and trusting relationships. Authenticity is fostered when you set goals suited to your child’s interests, abilities and talents. One of the great responsibilities you have as a parent — and one of the greatest gifts you can give to your children — is to teach them to develop their gifts fully to build their lives around whatever it is that fulfills them.

Tool 2: Parenting with Clarity

This tool is based on the principle that communication between parents and their children is essential for building and maintaining a loving and productive relationship. Children need to feel that they have certain power and influence within the framework of the boundaries that you’ve created in your family. The primary way to promote that feeling is to give them your full, undivided attention and weigh very carefully what they’re seeking to convey. Listening is the key.

Too often, the only communication that takes place between you and your child is when a crisis has erupted. It’s important to talk about critical issues outside of stress-packed situations. The time to discuss curfew, for example, is not when the child comes home 30 minutes late. The rules should be established before the kid goes out at night. If he breaks curfew, save the discussions of consequences until the calm of the next morning when you both have clear heads. Yelling and screaming in the heat of the moment is the poorest form of communication you can practice. Sometimes when it comes to communication, timing is everything.

Children want to be heard and know that their feelings are being considered. They want to know that they can earn certain rights and privileges if they do what is expected of them. They want to have a perception of some power, some ability to create what they want.

Tool #3: Parenting by Negotiation

As parents, you can negotiate with many different styles. The first step is to assess the kind of personalities and types you’re dealing with. That will tell you what type of negotiation approach to take. If you’ve got a highly rebellious kid, you don’t necessarily want to approach the negotiations in a heavy-handed way.

One of the first steps in teaching your child negotiation basics is to make sure he or she can predict the consequences of their actions so they have a sense of responsibility for the outcomes generated. Five critical steps to successful negotiation are:

– Narrow the area of dispute.
– Find out what it is they really want.
– Work to find a middle ground.
– Be specific in your agreement and the negotiation’s outcome.
– Make negotiated agreements, shorter term in the beginning.

 Tool #4: Parenting with Currency

If you want your child to behave appropriately, you have to set the standards for the behaviors you want. Too often, parents look only at undesirable behaviors and their parenting styles dissolve into complaining and reacting. If you focus on developing the positive behaviors in your child, then the negative behaviors won’t be so overwhelming. You also have to determine your child’s currency. Currency is anything that when presented during or immediately after a target behavior will increase the likelihood of that behavior occurring again. Figure out a way for them to get as much of what they want through appropriate behavior.

There are a number of different currencies that can vary with your child’s age. This can be stuffed animals, DVDs, television and computer privileges and stereos. Once you understand what is valuable in your child’s life, then you can mold and shape his or her behavior.

It is also effective to put in writing what you expect of your child, and what the consequences will be if he or she does not go with the program. These are called contingency contracts or behavioral contracts.

Tool #5: Parenting Through Change

You must be willing to adopt a commando commitment. This is having a whatever-it-takes mentality. This may mean that you may have to take two weeks off from your job and stay home with the children. You might have to drive a less expensive car, live in a smaller house, cut down on eating out or vacationing closer to home. The future of you and your children is at stake. Drastic problems call for drastic solutions. It’s called creating “disequilibrium,” because it results in a redefinition of roles and a major shift of power that can be temporarily unsettling to those who were running the show and having their way. Shaking up a family requires thoughtful planning.

Some ways to create disequilibrium are writing an expression of commitment, developing a communication system, holding a support system and anticipating resistance.

Tool #6: Parenting in Harmony

You do not have to compete with distractions like TV, cell phones, video games or Instant Messaging. The best way to accomplish your mission for family control is to insist on an environmental cleanup. The sooner you start this process and the younger your children are when you change the rhythm of your life, the easier it will be and more profound will be the impact.

You can start by listing your family’s top ten priorities. Then list the top ten things that waste time in your household. Once you compare the two lists, determine whether or not the way your family is living and investing their time is congruent. If you find the priorities and values at the top of your first list reside at the bottom of your time allocation list, you must consciously start reordering your time and energy commitments in such a way as to put what you know to be important back on center stage.

 Tool #7: Parenting By Example

The most powerful role model in any child’s life is the same-sex parent. It’s a fact that children learn vicariously by observing the behavior of others and noting the consequences of their actions. They watch what happens to family members when they succeed or fail and those experiences become a reference for how they live. This is known as modeling.

Through your actions, words, behavior and love, you can direct your children to where you want them to go. Show them how to be happy, well-balanced and fulfilled adults. Shed any negative attitudes. Dump self-destructive behavior patterns. Turn up the positive attitude.