Children of divorce straddle the fence between two worlds, not only the past and present, but also between the homes of two parents no longer together. No two homes anywhere in this world are exactly alike, so it would be challenging for any of us to alternate on any sort of regular basis between the routines and expectations of two households. This is incredibly challenging for kids because they are still developing, typically thrive with consistency and routine, and because they have allegiances to both parents.
Not only do children become frustrated and confused under these circumstances, but the parents who receive them often struggle with differences in behavior, attitude, and habits as a result of unique expectations and routines in each home. How then does a parent help their child or cope with the yo-yo of visitation and the fall-out of trying to exist in two worlds?
To illustrate this dilemma, a divorced mom named Jill shared her situation and frustrations:
Jill has four children (three boys and a girl) ranging in age from 10-18. Jill and her ex, Anthony, have been divorced for six years, and the children alternate between homes every other week for a week at-a-time. Jill describes her relationship with her ex as “high conflict” because they frequently argue and disagree about parenting. Jill is frustrated because Anthony trashes her to the kids. He is ordered to pay her child support (they agreed to an amount far less than the recommended amount) and struggles to pay his bills. He vocalizes his contempt to the kids by complaining that it’s her fault he can’t buy them Christmas gifts and referring to her as a “lazy bitch”.
Jill sees her kids struggling between the desire to be loved and accepted by both parents as well as the expectations of each home. Jill sees her home as the more organized and structured home. She has rules, a chore chart, values the children’s academics, and does not tolerate behaviors like stealing, swearing, or violence. She reports that when the kids come home after a week at dad’s they are angry with one another, prone to physical and verbal aggression toward one another, defiant to her, and usually behind on school work from the week before.
She recounted that recently when they were at her home, her youngest stole a watch and a cell phone. This event was made more serious by the fact that he had been caught stealing (mostly junk food and small electronics items) from both parent’s homes for several months. She decided that taking away privileges and reprimanding were not getting the message across, so she cleared out his room of everything but his bed and a few books, and he was restricted to his room at all times except to eat and use the restroom for the remainder of their week together.
Despite a trial of simulated prison, her son was found to have stolen items when leaving his room to use the restroom, and instead of remorse he demonstrated anger and defiance at his punishment.
Jill asked Anthony to come over so that they could talk to him together and share that neither supported his actions and were both fearful for what could result from continuing to steal. Before her son was in the room to talk to them, Anthony expressed to Jill that he was concerned, wanted to be “on the same page,” and see the stealing stop; but, as soon as their child entered the room he immediately took a sympathetic stance and refused to voice any disapproval, let alone express what he was prepared to do to deter the theft in his home.
As feared, her son returned to his dad, and his siblings shared that no discussion was ever had about the theft problem even after he continued to steal more items at their dad’s. The day before returning home to her, she sent him a friendly “hello” text with a meme she knew he would enjoy to a device he has at his dad’s. He replied “stop texting me, bitch.”
Clearly, this child is struggling to adapt with the sway of the divorce pendulum, and his behavior is spinning out of control! Anthony has refused to talk to her since the incident, and she is prepared for her children to come home full of attitude and resentment toward her for holding him accountable for his actions. In one home they are free to come and go as they please with no consequences, while she struggles to instill good morals, responsibility, and build a loving relationship with them.
If you find yourself struggling with similar issues when the climate of one home disrupts life in the other, try the following:
- Try to talk to the other parent about major behavioral concerns to compare notes and present a united front to your children.
- Understand that you can’t force your ex to see things your way or cooperate. You can try; but, ultimately you only have control over your actions and your home.
- Set boundaries between your home and your ex’s. If you can’t control what happens in their home, do you want them to try to control yours? Worry about what happens under your roof, and focus on making it as beneficial to your kid’s needs as possible.
- Remove yourself from the drama triangle of either being the accuser or rescuer. Remaining in the web of drama puts you in prime position to be manipulated and played by either your kids or your ex.
- Let your kids know that you mean business, but never let them forget that you love them! Of course kids would rather do whatever they want and never get in trouble, but you would be failing them as a parent to let them develop behaviors that will result in them becoming people who can’t function in society.
- Find balance between discipline and being the perpetual mean parent. It’s hard to hold the line to maintain expectations for good behavior all the time when as soon as they go to the other parent everything you work so hard for flies out the window- and the kids hate you! Make sure to praise them as deserved, spend quality time together, discipline with fairness, and find time for fun too!
- When your concerns are serious enough to fear court involvement, school expulsion, and others, reach out to community resources that can help you explain the necessity of following the rules so that your child will hopefully see the point of behaving, whether in your home or elsewhere.