"But Dad said I could!" Discipline Tips for Divorced Parents

“I asked mom and she already said it was okay for me to go out with my friends tonight.”

“But dad never makes me do my homework before I play video games!”

Sound familiar? Parenting across two households can be a real challenge. Working through the pain of ending a committed relationship into a working relationship that benefits our kids is hard work for divorced parents. Among the biggest challenges to navigate are differences in parenting styles, and in particular, your approach to discipline.

I've talked before about the critical importance of setting loving limits and consequences for our kids health and development. Kids thrive with structure, consistency, and boundaries. Setting limits and consequences not only help our children feel safe and secure, it also nurtures a critical character trait our kids need to succeed in both school and in life: self-discipline. The ability to delay gratification, put others’ needs in front of your own, and persist in a difficult task, are far greater predictors of success than intelligence.

So “No” isn’t just a word. It is a parenting strategy.

But what happens when kids are learning different lessons about “No” in different households? Negotiating these challenges taps into our deepest vulnerabilities. Will my son start to prefer the other parent’s house? Are the lessons I am trying to teach him even sticking? These vulnerabilities can quickly translate into anger and resentment that widen the void between households or into trying to win the favor of our kids by loosening rules in our own.

The good news is that having two households with loving and caring adults can expand the village surrounding our kids. Here are some tips to ensure that this village is helping your child thrive:

Try to get on the same page as much as possible

  • Set up a meeting to talk about your expectations, your approach to limits and consequences, and a way to work through disagreements when they arise. (Set up the meeting when you aren’t actively in conflict. Calling your ex-spouse while trying to wrestle the video game controller out of your son’s hands is not a great time to work this out.)
  • Discuss how ineffective the “good cop, bad cop” is for your child’s development. Neither role feels good over time and this dynamic often results in kids “triangulating” between parents to get what they want.
  • Remind your ex-spouse that meetings are for your child’s benefit, not a favor to you. Keep the child’s needs in the center of the conversation to reduce conflict.
  • If you aren’t able to have a civil or productive conversation on your own, consider bringing in an outside mediator. Someone trained in child development can help you both understand how to use your strengths to help your child thrive across households.
  • You will likely not be able to agree on everything nor can you anticipate all scenarios. Tackle your biggest concerns and work for consistency on those issues. If you spend all your energy fighting over little things you won’t have the energy or the trust to talk about the big ones.

Help your child adapt to different rules

  • You are never going to agree on everything. Children adapt to different rules all the time (think preschool, grandma’s house, etc…). They can do this!
  • Recognize and acknowledge these differences in calm and matter of fact ways. “At your mom’s house you can watch cartoons in the morning. At our house we don’t have the TV on on Sundays. Would you like to play inside or outside?”
  • Avoid power struggles. While it is an important time for consistency and limits, you don't want to erode the connection you have with your child by fighting all the time.
  • Never disparage or openly pass judgment on the other parent’s set of rules in front of your child. “I know your mom lets you stay up later. We both love you very much and we just do this differently. In our house bedtime is 8.”
  • Be patient and consistent as your child learns that different rules apply in different households. The more consistent you are the more quickly your child will understand and lean into the structure you’ve set up.
  • Create predictable family routines that help your child understand and practice the rules. For example, instead of wrestling your daughter’s cell phone out of her hands every other meal, create a basket where everyone’s cell phones go before beginning the meal with a song, words of gratitude or, grace.

Get real

  • All kids, whether their parents are divorced or not, will push against the limits. That is their job! It is your job to set them.
  • If the divorce is new, your child is even more likely to be testing the limits and working through strong emotions. Do your best to be calm, consistent, and to recognize the positive behaviors your see in your child. Spend extra time together and provide lots of reassurance. If your kids are older, get creative with connection.
  • Being firm and consistent does not mean being authoritarian and unreasonable. Listen to your child's feelings and opinions. Engage in limited negotiation when it makes sense.
  • Don’t expect your ex-spouse to follow through on a consequence you’ve set unless you are already on the same page. Keep the rules and consequences bound to your own home unless you’ve already agreed.
  • We all make mistakes. Be willing to apologize to your child if you’ve said something you regret in front of them.
  • Get support and talk to other parents, friends, and family about the challenges and frustrations you are experiencing. This will make it less likely for these feelings to emerge in front of your kids.
  • Giving in to your kids to win their love or trying to be their friend during a time of transition is likely to backfire. Children feel more safe and secure when you are the parent and they get to be the child.