When marriage ends, many parents struggle with feelings of anger and sadness, as well as potential feelings of inadequacy, making parenting a difficult task. When you were married, you likely had some parenting tasks that you did very well and others that you struggled with. Now, however, you must do all of the parenting tasks when your child is with you, and you might not always be as capable as you’d like. Parents in conflict tend to externalize blame and avoid looking inward when problems develop. You might blame your ex-spouse for any problems your child experiences, without realizing that it could be related to your own parenting. In trying to make up for the loss of the family unit, you may overindulge your child and try to buy her love. This is especially true for non-custodial parents, who often feel guilty about their limited time and involvement with their children.
Some divorced parents want to be friends with their child, losing sight of their duty to provide structure, guidance, and, appropriate discipline. This may cause children to become manipulative, attempting to pit you against the other parent. They may also attempt to get you to interact with each other with the hope that you will reunite. Under such circumstances, it’s easy to become insecure about your new role as a divorced parent. By doing the best job of parenting possible and taking personal responsibility for your role as a parent, you can meet your child’s needs in the healthiest possible way.
Stop Worrying About Criticism from the Other Parent
One of the most frustrating things you may face in parenting after divorce is constant criticism from the other parent. Parents are at risk of being criticized about many aspects of parenting, including your child’s bedtime, diet, activities, the manner in which you assist with school work, and your methods of discipline.
It’s common for criticism by the other parent to increase when hostility during the divorce increases. The best way for divorced parents to interact is to question each other about their concerns. More typically, however, the criticism comes in the form of derogatory statements made to children, friends, relatives, or professionals working with the family. The most damaging aspect of such criticism is when it is voiced to your children. No matter how justified you feel in your anger, it’s important to refrain from making negative statements about the other parent to your children.
It is also difficult to be on the receiving end of such criticisms. If someone is questioning your parenting techniques, you should first consider whether there is any validity to the criticism. If, however, you feel the criticism is baseless after some consideration, the key is to ignore it. Don’t become defensive or return the baseless criticism yourself – just ignore it. Thus, a two-pronged approach of thinking about the criticism and learning from your mistakes, in addition to ignoring baseless criticism, is the healthiest way to deal with criticism from the other parent.
If the criticism comes from your child, however, your job is more complicated. Becoming defensive only increases your child’s exposure to the conflict; ignoring the criticism without comment, however, may lead your child to think that the criticizing parent is correct. The best solution when faced with criticism that comes through your child is to ask her how she feels about the issue, respond to her stated feelings, and encourage her to always express her feelings to you about your parenting.
Your best response in any situation is to follow up on your child’s feelings and explain yourself. Stop and think about the impact of your parenting, respond to your child’s feelings, and ignore the criticism from your ex-spouse. This will allow you to be an effective parent, and also help keep your child out of the middle of your divorce conflicts.
Effective parallel parenting requires taking responsibility for your own parenting to do the best job you can, while ignoring your ex’s parenting. Rather than focusing on your perception of inadequate parenting by your ex, it is critical that you pay attention to your own parenting job and attempt to improve it. If you focus on blaming the other parent, you are teaching your child to blame others for problems in his life. The best way to teach your child to be responsible is to model self-responsibility as his parent.
Be a Parent, Not a Friend
When parents divorce, it is common for one or both to feel guilty about the breakup of the family. This guilt often causes parents to want to be a friend, rather than a parent, to their children, especially non-custodial parents who may have less time with their children than they would like. If you act too much like a friend, you are abdicating your responsibility as a parent. While parents have rules and structure, and encourage responsible behavior, a friend will be more likely to support immature behavior and irresponsibility.
One way to be a parent and a friend is to encourage your child to share his thoughts and feelings. Support your child’s activities and interests, nurture your child, and be there in times of need. Often, the tendency of divorced parents is to ignore the responsibilities of being a parent and attempt to be a friend by overindulging him with things that he demands, providing few limits, and encouraging him to avoid maintaining a healthy relationship with the other parent.
Disciplining and Loving Your Child
The most effective discipline is given in a loving manner, and for children of divorce, this is especially critical. Research suggests that authoritative parenting is the healthiest form of parenting; it emphasizes nurturing and sensitivity to your child’s feelings while simultaneously providing rules, structure, and reasonable discipline. Children whose parents have divorced may feel insecure about relationships. If your discipline is harsh, and not given in a loving manner, your child may feel insecure about your love. Rather than telling your child what she can’t do, tell her what you want her to do and why you want her to do it.
Discipline should be provided in a consistent, loving, and natural environment. Parents learn that natural consequences – where the consequence of one’s behavior naturally flows from the behavior itself – are the most productive. Your child is more likely to learn from her mistakes if she is free to make the mistakes, and if the consequences for those mistakes make sense. This is preferable to a power struggle.
In addition to using natural consequences, it is also important to teach your child to learn from his mistakes. You can model this by apologizing for your mistakes and helping your child understand how and why you made them. Support your children in using verbal methods to understand differences and resolve conflicts. Interacting with the other parent in a responsible way demonstrates healthy conflict resolution skills that your children can put to use with their friends and siblings.
Another important aspect of discipline is setting reasonable structures in the home for mealtime, bedtime, school, homework, chores, and playtime. Don’t overindulge your child because of your own feelings of guilt. Instead, encourage cooperation, responsible behavior, and healthy social interaction in your child. Be consistent in setting limits and follow through in order to maintain responsible discipline for your children.
Remember: the goal of discipline is to teach, not to punish. When you discipline your child, set limits, and tell her “no,” you must also express your love. By disciplining your child in healthy ways, you’re showing him that you love him. Showing your child love and positive attention also reduces the need to punish him, allowing you to nurture his healthy development in social relationships.
Avoiding Your Child’s Blackmail
When children of divorce spend time in two different homes, it is easy for them to pit one parent against the other. Your child might do this to encourage you and your ex-spouse to be in contact with one another in the hope that you get back together. However, your child can also become mercenary at times, demanding things from each of you. By saying things such as, “Dad will buy me that computer if I spend more time with him,” or “Mom will let me go to the dance even if my homework isn’t done,” your child is, in essence, blackmailing you.
As a divorced parent, you shouldn’t respond differently to blackmail associated with the other parent than you would with the parent of a friend. If you do, your child is more likely to use such blackmail in the future. Just as you’d deal with criticism from the other parent, the best solution is to ignore your child’s blackmail, while still paying attention to his feelings. Make sure your child understands why you’ve made this rule, encourage and support responsible behavior on his part, and work toward resolving your differences. Keep in mind that some limit-testing behavior is to be expected and may not be related to anything that the other parent is doing.
It’s important for you to be flexible. Rigid rules increase the possibility of a power struggle where there are no winners. If your child tries to change the rules, negotiate to see if a more flexible approach makes sense. If your child is willing to compromise, and you can be flexible, it is possible to accomplish what you both want. This teaches your child that you’re willing to talk out differences, attempt to resolve them, and find solutions that work for both of you. It is best if you have an initial structure and reasonable rules in your house, along with a willingness to be flexible. These standards will allow you to teach responsibility to your children while maintaining self-responsibility as parents.
This article has been adapted with permission from Parenting After Divorce: Resolving Conflicts and Meeting Your Children’s Needs (Impact Publishers, Second Edition, 2007), by Philip M. Stahl (Ph.D.). Reproduced with permission of Impact Publishers; further reproduction prohibited. www.impactpublishers.com.
Dr. Stahl is a board-certified forensic psychologist specializing in high conflict divorce in Maricopa County, Arizona. http://parentingafterdivorce.com