Divorce is a set-up for discipline problems to surface. When parents divorce, children often blame themselves or become angry at their mother and
father. They often show a complete turnabout in behavior and personality
following this family upset. These behavior challenges come at a time when
parents are busy putting their own lives back together, so they are less able to
cope with the child's problems. While sometimes a child's behavior actually
improves following a divorce (especially in abusive homes), more often than not
It is common for preschool children to become clingy after divorce. They are
uncertain of their support base and fear the custodial parent may also take
off. Expect regressive behavior, such as thumbsucking and problems
with toilet training, excessive masturbation, mood swings, aggressive behaviors,
and sleep disturbances (the child fears awakening to find mommy gone, too).
School-aged children are more likely to be angry at themselves and their
parents. Their school performance deteriorates, and they may form unhealthy
relationships with dubious peers.
Here are some ways both to ride out the storm of discipline after divorce and
to reconnect with your child in the changed family setting.
1. Reaffirm your love and availability
Most discipline problems
stem from children demanding attention and reaffirmation that they are loved and
will be cared for. Try to make as few changes as possible immediately following
the divorce. Take one stress at a time. Try to delay moving
in a child's school. If the previously at-home custodial parent must now work
full-time, try to delay this change as long as possible. A child under five may
interpret prolonged departures as a warning that this parent is also going to
2. Level with your children
Before your children fabricate their
own child-centered explanation of the divorce, explain to them in language they
can understand. You don't have to (and probably shouldn't) dwell on the
problems in the marriage, and don't run down your spouse.
Give them two
messages: The divorce is not their fault
; "You still have a Mommy and a
Daddy, and we both still love you and will take care of you." Parents divorce
each other, but they never divorce their children. Then explain how family life
is going to go on, what will be the same, and what will change. Utmost in
children's minds is concern about what will happen to them.
3. Organize the single-parent home
When parents divorce,
discipline often becomes relaxed, and household routines become disorganized.
If you have school-age children, call a family meeting to work out how everybody
will do their fair share to make the house run smoothly. Children in single-
parent families have increased responsibility; that's a fact of life. Remember,
children are angry about the divorce, so ease them gently into increased
responsibilities to keep them from rebelling. Be supportive and set aside
special times to focus on having fun with your children, as well as times to
work together on household chores.
4. Realize the other parent will have a different discipline style
Often following a divorce what happens is that the custodial parent finds it
necessary to run a tight ship, an organized home with increased responsibilities
and consistent, predictable discipline, while the non-custodial parent becomes
"Disneyland Dad," all fun and games and no structure
or rules. The custodial parent becomes the tough one; the non-custodial parent
the fun one. Since parenting is so profoundly personal and rooted in the
unconscious, there is no way divorced parents (not to mention step-parents) will
be able to discipline the same. Realizing this up front can save the parents
from being continually angry with one another. Don't worry that these
differences between two homes will be confusing to your child. Children are
very good at sizing up people, especially parents, and they will know which set
of circumstances makes them feel safer. Your child will be able to make the
adjustment leaving home and coming back again since children are so adaptable.
This is not to say that there won't be hassles, but as long as at least one of
the parents (probably the one reading this information) has a handle on
discipline, the child will feel grounded. The child will have the same attitude
toward the divorce situation as he sees his parents having.