Creating Clarity from Chaos

With its new rules and routines, divorce can bring disorder to any domicile. Here’s how to bring structure back to your family life.

Divorce Recovery

It’s a big transition for children to go from living as one family with two parents under one roof to living as one family under two roofs. There’s a lot of logistical and organizational planning needed to ensure the move to the “Mom’s house, Dad’s house” structure is smooth, while at the same time making sure that your children regain a sense of certainty and predictability in their two home environments. In this time of emotional distress, you can easily let a lot of things go: rules aren’t clear, schedules aren’t planned, and any responsibility the child may have had for pitching in with family chores goes by the wayside in the wake of divorce.

Signs that you’re stuck

  • You don’t have your children’s schedule planned more than one week in advance. You and your former spouse have no clear agreement, understanding, or advance planning of when your children are with you and with they are with their other parent.

  • Your children consistently don’t have things they need (schoolwork, clothing, sports equipment) at the house that they are in. It’s a constant struggle and source of frustration to ensure your children have what they need at the other parent’s house.

  • There is no consistent household routine. Bedtimes, chores, homework expectations, and rules about electronics all vary from week to week and from house to house.

  • Different rules at mom’s house and dad’s house cause ongoing stress and complaint. You feel like you and your ex are being manipulated or played off each other by your children.

Your schedule “hot spots”

There are predictable times in any family’s life when it can get more stressful, whether you are divorced or not. I call these “hot spots” because these blocks of time often create tension or upset if you’re not well prepared to handle them. Some examples include:

  • getting up on time
  • being ready and prepared for school
  • getting homework and studying done
  • mealtimes, particularly dinner
  • bedtimes
  • social times—having visitors into your home

For single-parent families, you can add these minefields to the “hot spot” list:

  • before and after your children visit the other parent
  • holidays or other special “family” occasions where one or both parents are present
  • school-related events where both parents are expected to attend

Without a system in place, these “hot spot” moments can trigger chaos. Arguments break out. Anger and tension mount. Your child may start to rebel or withdraw. Sometimes the single parent, worn out from nagging and negotiating, might simply dismiss the child from being part of the solution. Other times, a bribe or promise might buy the child’s cooperation in the short term, but in the long run, this solution doesn’t address the chaos. The result is we enable our children to become prima donnas, excusing them from learning the life skills they’ll need as responsible adults.

What’s your system?

What if the breakdowns we have in our family structure occur because the family support system needed some fine-tuning? This system includes how you operate as a family unit—how you communicate with and treat each other, understanding the needs the family has to address, and understanding the role that each member has in supporting the whole family unit.

Have you noticed when we have a breakdown in the family, whether it’s a chore left undone or an argument, we typically take that breakdown very personally. “When my kids don’t pick up after themselves,” shared Cindy, “I feel like they don’t respect or care about me or that I’ve done a bad job as a mother. Yet when I reminded them their grandparents were coming for a visit later that day, they immediately understood and cleaned their room without complaint.” Cindy could help her children remember family activities by keeping a family calendar marked with their grandparent’s visit. She could have an agreement with her children that they are responsible for knowing what’s on the family calendar.

Certainly our children take the system breakdowns personally. But it’s important to teach your children that making mistakes is a great way for us all to learn. Let your children know that they have an important role to play in shaping the way your family operates.

No structure creates insecurity

Children require structure. Having predictability and certainty about bedtimes, TV rules, mealtimes, and chores actually gives children a sense of security. With all the emotional upheaval divorce brings, your child may be comforted to know some things in his or her life can be counted on to remain the same.

Children want to know about some basic parameters that serve as the reference points for their life. Where will they live? Will they go to the same school and have the same friends? Where will the family pet live? When will I see Mommy, and when will I see Daddy?

The environment in which you live says a lot about you. There’s nothing like a divorce to create turmoil in your inner emotional world. This turmoil is displayed in many external clues—missed appointments because you forgot to put them on the family calendar, dirty dishes piled in the sink, missing ingredients for a meal, stacks of unwashed or rumpled clothing spilling out of the laundry hamper or scattered on the floor. For children, this increased disorder and chaos can be very unsettling.

Logistics are complicated

Having two homes with children living in each complicates the logistics of child-rearing. Assumptions, expectations, and rules that were the foundation of a well-run family household must now be drafted, expressed, and followed. Ideally, children should feel that they have “two homes,” instead of coming from a “broken home.” They should be at ease in their home with either parent.

“I had no idea how much basic information I took for granted and just carried it all around in my head,” explains Marcy, the mother of ten- and twelve-year-old boys. “I want my boys to learn to be independent, so what we did together was create a checklist of things to be packed. One part covered the basics they’d need every time. The next part covered special items—things they’d need for sports teams, birthday parties, any school requirements. We’ve got a system in place now. I spend less time nagging them or driving things over to their dad’s.”

What’s the schedule?

Your children need to know where they’re going to be and to have advance notice. Having the schedule on the calendar provides a sense of predictability and stability at a much needed time. Even if the child-sharing schedule changes at the last minute, you can explain that to your child and show them the greater context of that change.

Be sure to spend quality time with your children. Turn the computer or Blackberry off, don’t answer the phone, and give your child’s after-school debriefing your full attention. If you can, build in some one-on-one time with each child so you can connect. Every child is unique, and it can be very special to connect with them solo.

Don’t become a cinderella

Single parents may be more prone to catering to the whims of their children because they harbor guilt or pain about the separation. The value of having children participate in household chores is immense. It builds their self-confidence and self-esteem and contributes to a sense of belonging within the family unit. Even the youngest child can be asked to perform a special task. The astute single parent will ensure that each child has age-appropriate chores that contribute to the family’s well-being. These tasks can calm a child’s fears and build a sense of stability.

Don’t forget the discipline

Just as children need structure, they also need discipline: guidance, guidelines, rules and expectations. This should include relevant consequences if the rules are broken or expectations are not met.

Separated parents often struggle with discipline and exerting appropriate levels of authority because of guilt. Moms, who in the majority of cases have the lion’s share of time with their children, worry that if she’s too tough on the children they’ll want to go and live with dad. Dad fears if he’s too authoritarian with his children in the limited time he has them, they may not want to come back.

If your goal is to raise healthy, responsible, trustworthy, independent and loving adults who can work and play well with others, give your children the gift of discipline.

Creating clarity from chaos

I’m a big believer in taking simple baby steps on a consistent basis toward your goals. You are in the best position to judge where your needs are and what your priorities are. I encourage you to start with just a few simple actions to lower the chaos and increase the calm.

1. Build simple structures

To ensure you have clear communication, identify some of the problematic routines that challenge your peace of mind on a regular basis. Here are some ideas on how to tackle them:

  • Create a process chart so you and your children can understand what needs to happen, with whom, and by when.
  • Use sticky notes to articulate the steps needed for the structure you need to create.
  • After you’ve put each step on its own sticky note, arrange them in the order in which they should occur. Be sure to note on the paper who is responsible for each step!
  • You may want to use your sticky notes to create a checklist. You can print off your checklist, and your child can work with it until the routine becomes a habit.
  • Charts posted when everyone can see them are great tools for accountability for chores and responsibilities.

Making your routines more visual and creating them with your children helps to build their buy-in and participation in the solution.

2. Create a schedule

Strive to have clear communication with the other parent and with children about schedules. You are guaranteed to get a lack of cooperation if you spring something unexpected on your children at the last minute. Make sure you have a central family calendar that clearly marks when the children are with each parent. All major school, family, sporting, and community commitments should also be noted. Encourage your children to refer to the calendar so they can plan ahead. When your children are old enough, they can also add to the family calendar.

Some single parents find it helpful for each child to have a log book. The book stays with the child and is used by both parents to note the child’s mood and health status, provide reminders about upcoming events, and share special accomplishments.

3. Establish communications guidelines

Many parents, whether divorced or married, often make the mistake of endlessly reminding and nagging children when it comes to their responsibilities. It’s important to follow up words with actions.

Make sure your expectations for your children about family chores, schoolwork, and manners are clear. Identifying your steps and routines with them will help with this. If you run into problems, involve your children in some joint problem solving and brainstorming. This demonstrates that you value and respect them. Holding family meetings on a regular basis is a great way to build a sense of teamwork, do some planning, and solve problems together.

If the mood is getting heated, simply acknowledge you can see tempers are starting to flare and that you will reschedule the conversation later. If you are coparenting your child with your ex, it’s important you have some agreements as to how you’re going to communicate. The better and clearer your communication with each other is, the more clarity and peace of mind you’ll enjoy. Your children’s schedule should be included specifically in your parenting plan as part of your separation agreement. Be sure to establish a protocol for what happens if one parent is unable to be with the children on the day that the parent is supposed to spend.

4. Make a habit of acknowledgment

Relationship experts estimate that it takes five appreciations to counterbalance the negative impact of even one criticism. Research also shows that acts of kindness, such as appreciation, can alter the brain chemistry in a positive way, elevating our mood and sense of well-being. This change is enjoyed not only by the recipient of the act of kindness, but also by the giver and even third-party witnesses to the act. Take the time to acknowledge your children’s efforts. Thank them for their questions. Thank your ex for bringing the children back to you on time. Don’t forget to appreciate yourself as well! Appreciation and acknowledgment are the lubrication that will help ensure the operations of your family system run smoothly.

Excerpted with per-mission from the award-winning book The 7 Pitfalls of Single Parenting: What to Avoid So Your Children Thrive After Divorce by Carolyn B. Ellis, published by iUniverse. This best-selling book received multiple National Best Book 2007 Awards. Carolyn Ellis is the founder of Thrive After Divorce and is committed to providing success strategies and resources for separated and divorced individuals. A Harvard University graduate, Carolyn is the first Canadian to be certified as a Spiritual Divorce Coach. A member of Collaborative Practice Toronto, Carolyn coaches individuals world-wide and lives in Toronto with her three school-age children. This positive and helpful book was written to give single families the strategies they need to sidestep common parenting mistakes. With compassion, humor, experience, and wisdom, the author will help you understand and negotiate your new role, so you can help your children with the transition. Written in a straight-forward manner, each chapter also includes one or two simple tasks. You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment, reassurance, and relief as you follow this program.

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