A very common problem for single parents is dealing with some major acting out, typically right after the split and often after they’ve spent time with the other parent. In many cases, we’re tempted to blame the other parent, but it’s really not their fault – at least, not entirely.
Children often have the most difficult time dealing with divorce. As adults, we understand why we’re ending the relationship: our spouse has cheated, lied, we just aren’t compatible any longer, abuse…the list is endless. The problem is that we don’t share these reasons with the kids – which is not a bad thing. You shouldn’t tell your children that Daddy cheated or Mommy had a gambling problem that caused the house to be foreclosed. But because they don’t know the reasons for the split, they don’t understand what is going on. All they see is that their happy, intact home is being torn apart. Many times, they blame themselves, or they think that if you and your spouse stopped loving each other, you might stop loving the child next.
Children don’t act out because they want to get in trouble. They do it because they’re confused, scared and don’t know how to communicate this to you. In some cases, they are hoping that by behaving this way, you and the other parent will change your minds and get back together. While you’re not going to get back together, there are some things that Mom and Dad can do that might minimize the duration of this acting out.
Don’t tolerate the misbehavior. Some parents make the mistake of thinking that the best way to deal with this is to ignore it. They assume (often correctly) that it is a reaction to the divorce and that if they ignore it, it will simply go away on its own (incorrect). Discipline misbehavior exactly as you always have. If this is new misbehavior that you have never dealt with before, determine an appropriate consequence and then follow through. The biggest thing kids need during this time is consistency. They need to know that some things won’t change – your love for them, and the rules and boundaries that have always existed.
Don’t give in to “Guilty Parent Syndrome”. After divorce, parents feel guilty for having uprooted their child’s life. Some parents, usually a father who only has weekend visitations, will have “Guilty Parent Syndrome” and will ignore misbehavior and make his time with the kids into a huge party with no rules – or at least very few rules. While it’s understandable that you might feel bad for what divorce has done to your child’s life, and it’s also understandable that you want to make your limited time with your child as much fun as possible, you also have to remember that you are still a parent. Part of your job as a parent, even if you’re only there sometimes, is to discipline bad behavior and set rules. There’s nothing wrong with planning lots of fun during your visitation, but enforce the rules, preferably the same rules that the child has always had. If you’re the custodial parent, don’t give in to perceived pressure from your child when he or she comes home talking about how much fun the other parent’s house was. You’re not competing with your ex.
Back each other up. It can be tempting, especially if you and your ex don’t get along, to undermine your ex. You might feel the urge to tell your child that their other parent shouldn’t have punished them for whatever infraction, even when you know in the back of your mind that you would have punished them for that infraction and would have done so in just the same way. As much as it might irk you to agree with your ex, you need to when it comes to discipline. If you truly feel that a punishment is unfair (for example, two weeks grounded for talking back once), discuss it with your ex out of earshot of the kids. If you find yourself doing this too often, consider whether your ex is unreasonably punishing the kids or if you’re just feeling spiteful toward your ex and convincing yourself that your ex is being unfair.
Consider therapy. Some parents consider therapy to be a four letter word. They refuse to think of it as a viable option. If you think about it, though, most couples try marriage counseling before they resort to divorce. Therapy for your child is really no different than the marriage counseling you may have tried. A therapist can help your child express their feelings and then deal with them appropriately. They can also help your child learn how to better communicate with you – and since acting out can be the result of frustration with not being able to communicate effectively, this can be especially helpful.
Consider parenting/child classes. Marion County requires that parents take a parenting class as a prerequisite to divorce, and that children over a certain age take a class as well before the divorce can be finalized. Many parents feel offended by this, and at first glance, it does seem rather silly – it almost seems to imply that your decision to divorce means you don’t know how to parent. But the parenting classes required by the court system are tailored toward divorcing families – it covers information on how to effectively co-parent, handle visitation and many other topics that are specific to parenting in two houses. The classes for children will help them to better understand what’s happening. The instructor will be able to give your child nonbiased information about what Mom and Dad are doing – information that you may not be able to effectively provide because you aren’t sure what you should and shouldn’t say to your child, or because you are too emotional right now.
The most important thing is to make sure that your child knows that both parents still love them, and that you will still enforce the rules – both of you.