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 deteriorates.
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.
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 or changes 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 leave.
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.
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.
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.