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.