As the pediatrician to a family managing divorce, you may be one of the few authority figures whom both parents and the children all still respect and trust. You are in a strong position to ask a parent during an appointment how rules and limits are being managed across two homes. Find out if they have a clear plan for handling routine communication about the children, whether about summer camps or a new curfew, so that they don’t default to communicating only once there is a crisis. See if rules are a vehicle for ongoing parental fighting so that a minor difference (an 8 o’clock bedtime in one house versus 9 o’clock in the other) carries a high emotional charge. Find out if there are certain rules that have become very hard to enforce, or if their child has been testing limits more. Ask if there has been a consequence enforced in one home, but not in another. Often simply providing a calm affirmation that increased limit testing is normal in children after a divorce is very reassuring for parents. Remind them that providing reasonably consistent rules and limits will be very helpful to their children during this period, the opposite of making them a “bad parent.”
Some divorced parents will become more rigid about rules, managing any infraction or extenuating circumstance more like a contract negotiation. These parents might benefit from a suggestion that consistency and simplicity are the keys to effective rules across two households. Rules also provide an opportunity to listen to their children’s thoughts and feelings and share the family’s values that are the basis for the rules. Parents should be curious about their children’s opinions and be ready to show thoughtful flexibility when rules become outdated or special circumstances exist.
You can suggest a rule the parents should follow. While they can talk honestly about what each parent may struggle with or acknowledge clear differences in style or personality, they should strive to never vilify the other parent. Even in circumstances in which it is very difficult for two parents to collaborate, sharing grievances with the children will only be painful and confusing for them.
Lastly, pediatricians can discuss the long-term goals that all parents, even those alienated from each other, share. Children will do best when they have a positive, honest, warm relationship with each parent, and do not carry responsibility for negotiating conflict between their parents. Ultimately, more autonomy and fewer rules will be an important part of the child’s adolescence. Discord between parents, sabotaging of rules and consequences, and explicit contempt for their children’s other parent all will lead to children feeling burdened, having lower self-esteem, and being at greater risk for serious problems in school, emotionally or with substances as they grow into adolescents and young adults. If you are frustrated in your effort to protect children from ongoing discord, suggest a referral to a mental health clinician with expertise helping parents after a divorce.
Dr. Swick is an attending psychiatrist in the division of child psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and director of the Parenting at a Challenging Time (PACT) Program at the Vernon Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital, also in Boston. Dr. Jellinek is professor of psychiatry and of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Boston. E-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.