Whether you are recently divorced or have been for some time, don’t worry that you have ruined your child’s life. You haven’t. While divorce can be a big part of your child’s life, what will determine their ultimate quality of life is still in the hands of each parent.
Can children be affected negatively by their parent’s divorce? Does divorce lead to behavior problems in kids? Most certainly. But it’s important to understand that children are not necessarily doomed because of a divorce. There’s plenty you can do as a parent to make this difficult time easier.
Let’s take a closer look at a few everyday situations that arise in divorce families and how you can best handle them so that your child doesn’t get caught in the crossfires.
One of the reasons you got divorced might have been because you had a hard time agreeing with your spouse on most things. Being divorced is not going to make that any easier. The good news is that your ex cannot tell you what to do when you have the kids. And, of course, you can’t tell them what to do, either—or how to parent.
[Note: Unless there is a case of proven abuse or neglect, you do not have control over how your ex will parent your child. Courts usually back the rule that what a parent does when with their child is their own business.]
Here’s an important rule: you are the only one in charge when your kids are with you. The key is to make rules and enforce those that support your principles. Expect your child to follow your home’s rules, and don’t worry about what is going on in your ex’s home.
Of course, it is beneficial to work together with your ex when it comes to parenting your child, if possible. You can suggest things, let your ex know your concerns, listen to and consider their concerns, and then decide for yourself what you will or won’t do. You can try to discuss your parenting ideas, but if your ex is not on board, stay focused on your parenting values in your home. In other words, focus your energies on the things over which you have control.
The answer to your ex if they complain about your parenting is to say:
“Thank you for the input, but I’m good with how I’m doing things.”
If they continue to complain, again repeat:
“I’m comfortable with how I’m handling things.”
Don’t engage in any more conversations about this topic. And don’t let your ex drag you down into a fight.
Along the same lines, don’t go crazy about how your ex is parenting. What matters is how you parent when your kids are with you. Even if you only have your child part-time, your parenting influence matters greatly and it’s something you control.
Related content: What to Do When Your Ex Undermines Your Authority
Children can get caught in the middle when parents put them in the middle. Therefore, don’t talk to them about your ex in a way that will force them to take sides. Kids don’t want to take sides—they want to be free of worrying about the other parent when they are with you.
Let’s say your child says, “Dad says that you don’t help me enough with schoolwork.” As long as you believe you’re doing your best with that, instead of saying “That’s not true!” or unleashing some choice words about your ex-spouse, try to respond non-defensively. You can say:
“I think we’re doing a good job together. I’m sorry your father feels that way.”
By doing that, you have successfully ended the battle and gotten your child out of the middle. It also sends the message to your child that the other parent can do or say whatever they want, but it doesn’t matter when your child is with you. You won’t engage in the battle.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid saying anything negative about your ex to your child. You may have to bite your tongue, but it’s important. Even if your ex is behaving badly towards you, keep your child out of it. If you need to vent, do so with a friend, not your child. By doing this, you’ll be helping your child have healthy relationships with both parents, and that’s good for everyone in the long run.
A by-product of divorce is that sometimes kids will play parents off one another. It’s a source of power for them that, quite frankly, often works. You’ll hear things like, “Mom says that I don’t have to go for extra help at school if I don’t want to.” Or, “Dad lets me stay up until 10 p.m.” The bottom line is that children will often use that edge to manipulate you to get what they want.
When you catch your child manipulating you in this way, pause and say:
“When you are in my home, you follow my rules. If you’re in Dad’s home, you follow Dad’s rules. I don’t control what your Dad does, and he doesn’t control what I do.”
Here’s what you can do to prevent their manipulation from becoming effective: check with the other parent directly. Verify that what your child says is true. If it’s not true, you will know, and your child will figure out quickly that this type of manipulation won’t work.
By the way, don’t get into the habit of relaying messages to your ex through your child. If you have a message or question, call the other parent directly.
If your child lies about what the other parent said, and then tries to hide it, confront your child. You can say:
“I talked to your mom, and she did not say that. I don’t want you lying to me.”
When you do this, you are letting your child know that you are dealing directly at all times with your ex and that they can’t get away with playing you off the other parent.
Many kids have difficulty transitioning back and forth between homes each week. On the day they arrive home, they might act out by throwing tantrums, having outbursts, or by “acting in” and shutting the door to their room and refusing to speak.
Why do they do this? They might be testing you to see if you are strong and steady. They may have kept it together with the other parent and now are letting loose with you. They may be expressing their anger at the disruption in their lives and their wish for you to be back together as a family. Sometimes kids will be a problem on purpose because they hope their parents will get together around this “difficult child.”
Be empathetic to the feelings that might drive these behaviors. After all, your kids are being impacted by something they don’t have control over and probably didn’t want.
Keep in mind, though, that you do not need to put up with the behavior if it crosses the line and becomes disrespectful or inappropriate. When you talk with your child about it, you might first acknowledge their legitimate feelings. You can say:
“You sound angry. Do you want to tell me what’s going on?”
“You sound sad. It must be hard to leave Dad’s home and know you won’t see him for a few days.”
If your child continues to have tantrums, ignore them the best you can. Respond only when your child has calmed down. Whenever your child transitions in a positive way, acknowledge the good behavior. Say to your child:
“I noticed this week when you came back home, you were pretty calm and in control. I know that’s difficult for you, and I appreciate you keeping it together.”
Kids react to divorce in different ways. They may begin to overachieve or underachieve. Or, they may act out or withdraw. Some may even try to take on the missing parent’s role and act too adult-like instead of a child, which psychologists refer to as overfunctioning. Overfunctioning is a way that people deal with anxiety by being over-responsible for others, and it’s not effective or helpful for either person.
Children often overfunction for their parents after a divorce because there’s a vacuum that’s been left. They move right into it because they feel like they have to fill the missing parent’s role. It’s a way to deal with the stress of the breakup. What will help your child the most is to assure them that the best thing to do right now is just to be a kid and live their own lives as best they can.
As a parent, you can remind your child by your actions and your words that they do not need to take care of you. Although you are going through a rough period, reassure them that you can take care of yourself and your family.
There are many reasons why kids act out after a divorce. Here are some of the most common:
Some kids act out right after a divorce in an attempt to push you to be strong. If your child is acting out, it helps to understand that their behavior might be coming from their anxiety about the divorce. It makes kids nervous when their parents seem to have lost strength. If your kid is pushing you in all different ways, it could be that they’re hoping to see a parent that doesn’t break.
If that’s going on in your home, you can again empathize and understand where these behaviors might be coming from, but you don’t have to put up with them. Let your child know that it will be most helpful to be more cooperative and not give you a hard time. Then set limits and follow through with consequences consistently.
Many kids act out and misbehave due to the stress and anxiety of their parents’ split. As a result, many parents skip giving consequences after a divorce because they feel guilty about what they have done to their child’s life. They forego consequences because they blame themselves for their child’s behavior.
Although the feelings of guilt are understandable and expected, skipping consequences is not effective and doesn’t help your child. Effective consequences teach your child how to manage their feelings appropriately, and they need these skills now more than ever.
Remember, the best thing you can do for your child right now is to be consistent. Yes, be empathetic to your kids—they are going through a rough time, too. But hold the line when they cross the line. The limits you set and enforce provide much-needed structure during this difficult time.
If your teen keeps breaking curfew, give them the same consequence you would have given before. If your 10-year-old calls you names and screams in your face, again, follow through with some appropriate discipline.
Be sure to talk with your child after everyone has calmed down and find out what’s going on with them. Be open to talk about the divorce and their feelings around it if the subject comes up. Let them talk and listen to what they have to say. Sometimes your child just needs to vent.
Understand that it is normal and natural to fall apart right after the divorce. Divorce marks the end of a relationship, and there is a grieving process we go through when we call it quits with our spouse—regardless of how amicable the split is. You may feel overwhelmed, sad, angry, and less patient in general.
Your child’s behavior will likely be affected as well. They will go through their own grieving process, but added to that are their worries about their parents, how to transition between Mom and Dad’s home, how to deal with each home’s rules, and what the future will hold.
But here’s the truth: you are entitled to fall apart. You do not have to hide all your sad and difficult feelings from your child. This is different from over-sharing with your child or telling them too much about your personal life or your relationship with your ex. Over-sharing is a mistake because it forces your child into an adult position, making them your confidant. It can also create a bias against the other parent. So, instead of over-sharing, just let your child know you are having a hard time and that you will get better.
To keep your mind at ease, and to help you stay calm, recognize that how your child turns out has the most to do with the relationship that they develop and maintain with each parent. Divorce is not the only factor that will impact their life. How maturely you behave with your ex will keep your child out of emotional harm’s way, and it will help you maintain a solid relationship with your child.
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.
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My relationship with my ten-year old daughter has deteriorated so badly over the past three years that she refuses to see me. She tells her mom she doesn’t feel safe. It is completely baffling to me as I ask her to follow my rules when she is here. My ex-wife has told her that at any time she feels uncomfortable, nervous or “unsafe”, that she can call her and my ex-wife will come pick her up. I have spoken with multiple counselors, clergy, and friends and no one can or has pinpointed anything I am doing that is out of the parental norm. My daughter has complete say on whether I see her. For example, since May 2021, I’ve seen her for a total of three hours. And, I’ve not spoken with her. She refused to FaceTime on Christmas, refused to call on my birthday and on Father's Day. I’ve read books, followed Empowering Parents, watched parenting videos, Super Nanny, anything and everything to improve my relationship. However, I have no say in anything as my ex-wife asks her if she wants to see me and allows her to say no, despite or separation and divorce agreement for shared custody.
I know saying my daughter feeling unsafe sounds horrible and it’s heartbreaking that she feels that way. I can’t for the life of me figure this out. She’s claimed I’m mean but, again, in talking with counselors and friends, I’m not doing anything but setting rules and consequences. However, I feel completely powerless to set consequences because I see her infrequently. It’s obvious I have lost any parental authority or standing with her and it’s been that way since she was about six. Friends suggest my ex-wife is undermining me and that’s why my daughter feels she can just leave my home or demand I take her home on a moments notice. She also has very violent outbursts. I call them her seeing Red. Since she was seven, about the time I moved out, she’s hit, kicked, bit, thrown things, and hit me with things when I ask her to do simple things like turn of lf the television or get ready to go home.
I’m now in a position where I immigrated to the UK to be part of her life but my ex-wife will not support a parental visa because I have not co-parented or had shared responsibility over the most two years. But this is solely because she allows my daughter to say when or if she sees me. I’ve spoke with family lawyers about court ordered visitation but am concerned forced visitation might irreparably harm the relationship. Of course it can’t get much worse. So, I’m four months from deportation and all I want is a healthy relationship with my daughter. I just don’t know what to do. My ex-wife says she doesn’t want me to leave as it will probably severe any future relationship but she allows my daughters behavior to continue as she feels she is protecting my daughter from harm. It makes no sense to anyone who has seen my daughter and me together. I feel completely lost.
I’m sorry to hear about the issues you are facing with your
son, and the way that your ex is treating you. As Debbie points out in
the article above, it tends to be most effective if you focus on your own
relationship with your son because this is where you will have the most
control. I hear your pain in the way that your son is treating you, and
the statements he is making toward you. At the same time, I encourage you
to do your best https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/disrespectful-child-behavior-dont-take-it-personally/ these statements. In addition, given your son’s age,
it’s actually pretty normal for him to start pulling away from you, and not
being as interested in hanging out and doing things together as a part of his
development. Janet Lehman offers some advice on how to handle this type
of behavior in her article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/adolescent-behavior-changes-is-your-child-embarrassed-by-you/ I recognize how
difficult this must be for you, and I wish you all the best. Take care.
after a divorce can be a tricky thing to navigate for many families, and even
more so if one parent is trying to sabotage visits with the other parent.
Regardless of the reasons for your daughter’s acting out, the most effective
thing you can do is keep the focus on the rules in your home, and hold her
accountable with a consequence when she breaks them.You can also have a conversation with her at
a calm time, and ask her what she can do different next time to make sure she
is following the rule or rules that she broke. As Debbie Pincus mentions in her
above article: “You
are the only one in charge when your kids are with you. The key is to make
rules and enforce those that support your principles. Expect your child to follow
your rules in your home and don’t worry about what is going on in the other
home.” Best of luck to you and your
family as you continue to work through these behaviors.
It saddens me to hear this. And i can feel your heart breaking in your words.
I am 54 years old, my dad passed away 21 years ago, when I was pregnant with my now 21 year old son.
My parents divorced when I was 12. And my mom remarried to a man who she is still married to this day.
Although he is a good man, and has treated me(and my syblings) well, the bottom line is he is still not my father. :(
As humans we are capable of loving more than one person at a time. I tell this to my children all the time. And children especially hold this trait because they can love more unconditionally than we, because they are unblemished from many of the things in the world that can make them insecure and hesitant to love freely.
Please don't remove yourself from your son's life. My father did that, and I missed him terribly, even as I said,.my step-dad is a good man. But I still miss my dad even to this day and miss what "could have been".
Fight for what is yours. You have the right to be with your son. Keep that right. He will give you much joy, (and of.course headaches, lol), but you won't change it for the world.
Don't give up. You deserve to be in each others lives.
I know you feel Iike stepping aside may seem like the right thing, but please don't sell yourself short. By you admitting how much your son means to you tells me you need to be a part of his life. All the money and time in the world will not buy the love a father can give to his son. Keep your head up it'll get better.
I can hear how painful this situation is for you. While I’m
not in a position to tell you whether or not you should continue to be a part
of your son’s life, I can tell you that it is possible for a child to have both
a loving father and a stepfather without issues. You can still play a major
role in your son’s life even if his mom has married someone else. It doesn’t
have to be a competition to see who is able to buy him more or spend more time
with him. It may be helpful to find someone in your area you can talk to about
this situation who may be able to help you determine your next steps. The 211
Helpline can give you information on resources in your community, such as
support groups for single and/or divorced parents, counselors, and family
therapists. You can reach the Helpline 24 hours a day by calling 1-800-273-6222
or by logging onto 211.org. Best of luck to you and your son moving forwards.
I’m so sorry to hear about what you are experiencing with
your son since your divorce. It can be very difficult when a child comes
home from seeing another parent, and is comparing the two households. As
Debbie mentions in the article above, you cannot control what happens when your
son is with his dad. Ultimately, you are going to be most effective if
you focus on your son’s behavior while he is with you. In addition to
this article, you might find some useful information in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/stop-aggressive-behavior-in-kids-and-tweens-is-your-child-screaming-pushing-and-hitting/ and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-to-respond-to-disrespectful-children-and-teens/. I recognize how
difficult this must be for you, and I hope that you will check in and tell us
how things are going. Take care.
is a challenging situation when an adult child wants to be involved in a legal
matter between her parents. While you cannot control what their mother
chooses to do, you can control the boundaries you choose to set. Even
though this situation is a bit different than the article in that the children
are looking to become involved in issues between their parents, I still
recommend doing your part to not discuss these matters with them. You
might also consider using local resources, such as a mediator or family lawyer,
to help your family through this time. You can find available community
supports by contacting the http://www.211.org/ at
1-800-273-6222. Take care.
Thank you for your kind words. We are glad we can offer
support to parents who are facing tough issues. I can hear how much you want to
keep things amicable between you and your son’s father. It’s unfortunate that
he doesn’t seem to have the same goal. Where there is a current visitation
agreement in place, it would probably be in your best interest to talk with
legal counsel about this matter. A legal professional would be able to give you
guidance on how to ensure the agreement is being followed. If you are not
currently working with a legal professional, the 211 Helpline would be able to
give you information on such services in your area. You can reach the Helpline
24 hours a day by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by logging onto http://www.211.org/. Good luck to you and your son moving
forward. Be sure to check back and let us know how things are going. Take care.
What a tough situation. I can only imagine how upsetting it
must be to watch your son suffer this way. Since there is a court ordered
visitation schedule in place that his ex wife isn’t following, it would be best
to talk with legal counsel about this situation. Someone familiar with your
local policies and laws would be in the best position to discuss what options
are available for your son. The 211 Helpline would be able to give you
information on legal services in your area. You can reach the Helpline 24 hours
a day by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by visiting them online at http://www.211.org/. Good luck to you and your family moving
forward. Take care.
I am so sorry you are facing
such a challenging situation. It is so hard to see your child change into
something you did not expect or don’t approve of. It is tough when it is a
divorce situation and the other parent is allowing things that you would not.
Unfortunately, there is not a lot you can do to change it as long as she is not
in danger. Her dad has the right to say yes to these changes if he wants to. At
this point it is about finding ways to cope with a situation you have no control
over. Try and also focus on your relationship with your daughter and not on what she looks like
right now. It is very likely to be something she is trying right now and she
will move onto something else soon. It is not a bad idea for her to get some
counseling if you feel she is struggling. Maybe you can look into it for
yourself and let her dad know what you found. That may help the situation
along. You can find services in you area by contacting the http://www.211.org/
online or by calling 1-800-273-6222. Good luck to you as you continue to work
Thank you for writing in, and it’s understandable how you
would feel upset by the events of this summer. Co-parenting with an
ex-spouse can be challenging under the best of circumstances, and it’s great
that you have put in so much effort to maintain a working relationship with
your daughter’s father. I encourage you to remain calm and business-like, and
to focus on your daughter’s best interests when you speak with your ex. Sometimes
it can also be useful to use a neutral third-party, such as a family counselor
or mediator, to come to a compromise. For assistance locating resources
in your area, try contacting the http://www.211.org/
at 1-800-273-6222. It’s difficult to determine why your daughter’s
behavior toward you has changed, and if she is refusing to speak with you, it
can be even more challenging. Ultimately, your daughter is responsible
for her own actions, regardless of what might be influencing her. It
could be useful to bring up the change in her behavior in private during a calm
time, and reinforcing your boundaries around how you want to be treated. I
appreciate your writing in for support, and I hope that you will write back and
let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take care.
Blending families can be challenging. This can be especially
true when the rules differ greatly between the two households. One thing you
might consider doing is sitting down with your husband and discussing what some
basic rules and expectations might be, as suggested in the article Blended Family? The 5 Secrets of Effective Stepparenting. It’s also going to be
important to defer to her dad whenever possible. I understand this may not bedoable, especially if you find yourself spending
a lot of time with her alone. Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s not
unusual for a 2 year old to act out or have tantrums when they get upset. Her
frustration tolerance is going to be pretty low and she hasn’t yet developed the
skills to deal effectively with any frustration she has. It’s also not going to
be possible to talk her out of a tantrum. For the most part, once a child has
reached that level of escalation, the best thing to do is give her some space
to calm herself down. Due to her age, it’s not going to be advisable to walk
away from her, however. Most of the tools and techniques discussed on
Empowering Parents are designed for children who are 5 years old or older. Some
things, such as walking away, could make for an unsafe situation with a child
this young. We do have several articles by Dr. Joan Simeo Munson that focus on
young children. You can find a list of Dr. Joan’s articles here: http://www.empoweringparents.com/author.php?auth=Dr.-Joan-Simeo-MunsonChecking in with her pediatrician may also be
beneficial. The doctor can help you to understand your child’s needs and
possibly determine what techniques are most appropriate for her. I hope this
information is helpful. Be sure to check back if you have any further
questions. Take care.
Debbie, thank you for these great tips. My sister is going through a divorce at the moment. She has a lawyer helping her out with the case but is nervous for her children. It seems like many of your suggestions could help her continue to be a great parent when the divorce is finalized.
What a great tip about not letting your ex criticize your parenting style! After one of my best friends' divorce, she was constantly feeling like a poor parent because her ex-husband would tear down her parenting techniques. It wasn't until she realized that he had no right to give hisMore input that she was able to start feeling like she was actually being a good mother to her children.
Mature people are open to constructive criticism, and the other parent has a compelling interest in the rearing of their child. Her FEELINGS and self-worth should be controlled by her research and knowledge that she is indeed parenting properly. It is about the child, not the capricious feelings ofMore the parent. If she wants to be a good mother than do exactly that. Nurture, set reasonable boundaries, and administer reasonable consequences and discipline. If the other parent has a valid input, acknowledge and implement it. If not, simply politely explain why not, and then go about your business of doing the right thing...for the child.
This is so important for divorced parents to know and understand. Divorce is hard on everyone in the family, especially kids. Their needs can often get lost in courtroom debates, so it's important to know what they really want.
My sister just got divorced and she has two kids. I am trying to find helpful material for her to read and I like this article a lot. I could see her children trying to take on the other parent role and so I'll point that part out to her.More Thanks for the article.
I have 4 children, 2 grown and on their own and 2 almost. The 2 at home are 19 (at college) and 18 (a senoir). I recently married a man with 3 children. A 13 girl and 2 boys (3 and 4 1/2). His 13 yo daughter live with usMore full time and rarely sees her mother and the boys we have half of the time. We really don't have an issue with his daughter, my issue is with the boys. They are LOUD and wild and scream and hit and constantly tell their dad NO. The problem is they have no dicipline what so ever at their mother's house and allowed to pretty much do whatever they want. They have learned that if they pitch a screaming/crying fit they will eventually get their way. To the point that BOTH the boys still have a pacifier. My husband hates that he is the only one diciplining the boys and doesn't want to spend all of his time with them having to do so. He wants to be able to enjoy his time with them. He is constatnly threatening to take the pacifiers away but never does because he says "what's the point? She's just going to give them back to them as soon as they go back to her house. It's becoming the same way with everything else as well. He threatens them with "time out" but they never seen to get put there and their behavior is only getting worse. My question is, at 3 and 4 1/2 do you think they are old enough to understand that they have a different set of rules at our house? I think they are but my husband isn't so sure. What are your thoughts?
speak with many parents who wonder about setting limits and enforcing
consequences with young kids, and whether children that age are capable of
understanding the rules in different places. Your stepsons are at the age
where they are learning that there are different rules depending on where you
are. For example, there are different rules in a preschool classroom than
on a playground, and there can be different rules at dad’s house and mom’s
house too. As Debbie states in the above article, ultimately, you are the
one in control of the rules when the kids are with you. It could be
helpful to sit down together and develop a short list of simple rules for your
house, such as “No Hitting”, “No Yelling”, and so on. You can also write
down the consequences associated with those actions, such as “Sit by yourself
for 5 minutes” or “Lose a TV show”. You can find more suggestions in our
article by Dr. Joan Simeo Munson, http://www.empoweringparents.com/5-steps-to-giving-effective-consequences-to-young-kids.php.
The next time your stepsons are at your house, your husband can go over the
rules with them as well as the consequences. Because it is hard to feel
like a constant disciplinarian, especially when the kids are not with you
full-time, we also recommend coming up with incentives for good behavior.
I understand that this is a challenging issue, and I appreciate your writing in
with your question. Please check back and let us know how things are
going; take care.