The divorce process is riddled with many trials for parents during a time when they are struggling to redefine their relationship with their former spouse as well as helping their children adjust to the new family circumstance. Discipline often poses a significant challenge to parents who are already emotionally exhausted and attempting to steer their children between two different households. That being said, effective discipline with consistent limits and expectations can help parents establish a stable, structured and secure environment.
There are a few practical steps necessary to create a discipline approach suitable for a two-household family:
Create a parenting partnership
Meet with the other parent to discuss an approach to discipline. Determine how closely you will work together. Some parents prefer to consult with one another only on big issues such as academic and behavioral problems at school, while others choose to confer about every detail in a child’s life from homework and bedtime routines to rules for the use of electronics and cell phones. If you and the other parent decide to allow consequences to apply to both households, discuss beforehand which infractions are significant enough for a joint consequence.
Create common ground
While it is preferable to have similar rules and routines in both households, children are able to understand and adjust to different rules in different environments. However, the same rules and routines across households result in benefits to both the children and parents. By keeping things consistent, children are less likely to put one parent against the other. Children will sometimes take this position because it has the power to get a parent upset and quite frankly, it often works. This is very empowering for a child. They are learning to manipulate to get what they want. If your child says, “Mommy doesn’t make me pick up my toys.” You may consider saying, “At our house our rules are different. We pick up our own things.”
When parents present a united front regarding their approach to discipline and routines, children are less likely to manipulate and more likely to flourish and adopt appropriate behaviors. Try to discuss your parenting ideas and concerns with the other parent. Likewise, listen to the other parent’s ideas and concerns, but if you can’t reach a consensus, focus on parenting in your own home and allow the other parent to do the same in their home.
Be clear, firm and consistent
The key to effective discipline is being clear, firm and consistent. Children gain a sense of security and learn to trust you through discipline.
- In a clear, short sentence, explain exactly what you mean and follow through. If you say “no”, it means just that. Be firm. Firmness means to be certain, and determined while delivering the message in a clear, calm and firm tone of voice. Children will learn that you mean what you say. Consistent parenting is being reliable, dependable and constant.
Enforce housebound routines, rules and consequences
If you and the other parent have not agreed to daily routines, rules, and the enforcement of consequences in the other’s household, don’t expect or demand the other parent to adhere to your structure and discipline. It is not fair to the other parent and will only create conflict. You are only in charge when the children are with you, and the same applies with the co-parent.
Create disciplinary methods that can be contained to your home. For example, limit the length of consequences to days that your child will be under your supervision. In the event inappropriate behavior occurs right before a transition from one home to the other, a short time-out will do for children 6 years of age and under. For older children, consider taking away a privilege, prized possession or assigning additional chores once your child returns home. Avoid using your child’s cell phone as a disciplinary technique if the other parent purchased it, unless both agreed to this beforehand..
Support the other parent
It is unrealistic to believe that you and the other parent will agree on all parenting matters. When you don’t agree with the other parent’s perspective, it is important that you don’t contradict or undermine their authority with the children. Even when children complain about the rules in the other parents’ home, reinforce that each parent deserves respect.
It may seem time consuming to develop an effective disciplinary approach between households. In the beginning it takes concentrated effort and time, but if you maintain consistency, new patterns of behavior will form. Consistent adherence to daily routines, structure, and discipline create happy children who feel safe and secure, and offers a chance for parents to work efficiently with their co-parent, thus creating a united front for their children.
Ann Marie Termini, Ed.S., M.S., LPC