A major challenge faced by parents is the task of setting basic ground rules and expectations for their children, and then enforcing these with limits, rewards, and consequences. This task is made far more difficult when parents are separated or divorced. Agreeing upon and enforcing rules in separate homes often becomes burdened by the angry baggage that led to the divorce. When a family in your practice is going through a divorce, you have an opportunity to provide the parents with valuable strategies to manage rules effectively so that conflict is minimized.
Many happily married parents who communicate very well on most matters struggle to get on the same page when negotiating rules and limits. One parent’s sense of what is an appropriate bedtime, how children should help with chores, or even how often they can have sweets can become a deeply held belief and might be very different than their spouse’s opinions. Sometimes, a parent has old anger about how they were raised and finds it hard to distinguish what might have been better for them, compared with what is best for their own child. Cultural and family differences on how much choice children should have at different ages, criteria and severity of any consequences for misbehavior, and opportunities for redemption or amnesty all add complexity to the discussion. Once they have found common ground on what makes sense for their joint rules, values, and needs of their child, they have to manage enforcing rules and limits, agreeing upon appropriate rewards and punishments, and bearing the inevitable distress of their children when facing a limit or consequence. And, of course, once parents think they have it all figured out, their children react and grow, and they must reset the rules, expectations, and consequences.
When parents get separated or divorced, this process becomes considerably more difficult. Negotiating new rules or limits is very difficult when communication is hampered by conflict. Parental guilt about the divorce itself, anger at old hurts or disputes about money and custody, missing the child between visits, and remarriages all add baggage to the discussion of a reasonable bedtime or consequences for a poor grade at school. If the divorce required aggressive negotiation between lawyers, appointment of a guardian ad Litem to manage ongoing disputes involving the children, or a court case to reach resolution, the tensions between parents can be intense, enduring, and with no issue too small to add fuel to the arguments. Enforcing limits is much harder for a single parent than when there are two parents doing the enforcement. And divorced parents, already feeling guilty and insecure, are more likely to suspend rules or limits so that they don’t have to be the “bad parent.” For the child or children, the stress and disruptions that come with divorce can cause an increase in regressed or disrespectful behavior. While it can be a time when limits are increasingly tested, being reasonable and consistent in enforcing limits becomes more important, as it provides reassuring steadiness in the midst of turbulent change.
Let’s take the example of a 12-year-old coming home from school with poor grades. One parent may see the need for a tutor, but might be using that approach as part of a financial attack if the other parent has to pay for it. The other parent may want to limit the use of computer games or access to television until the grades go up. And one may expect movement from a D to a C average while the other may expect A’s, period. Is the poor grade based on lack of ability, effort, an attempt to get attention, a reaction to the divorce, or preoccupation with ongoing parental discord? What is the impact on the child if in one home there is a tutor and a C expectation, and in the other there is no tutor, no computer use, no TV... and these change every time the child moves from one home to the other? A child striving to overcome a poor grade needs calm, consistent, patient, and optimistic support, rather than managing the increased tension across two homes or feeling like the cause of increased conflict. Virtually any reasonable approach is better for the child than each parent doing something different as a reflection of ongoing tension. Pediatricians can be extraordinarily helpful to their patient if they can get divorced parents to agree on a single approach that is based on their child’s needs rather than past and ongoing angers. The emotional damage of ongoing discord is far worse than any C average.