Disciplining Children Through Divorce
Limit Their Behavior, Not Their Thoughts
Discipline is always a challenge for parents. Regardless of your child’s age, they inevitably find ways to act out, challenge your authority and test the limits of their boundaries. Often these behaviors create tension and disagreements between Mom and Dad, which children are good at exploiting to their advantage. This, of course, is the time for Mom and Dad to forge a solid bond of agreement regarding their approach to discipline. If they do, the child is less likely to test the waters and more likely to alter their behavior into more appropriate channels.
When separation or divorce takes place, disciplining children can become even more difficult, especially if Mom and Dad are not on good terms regarding parenting their children. Parental discord can open the door for children to move into behavioral extremes, pitting you and your former spouse against each other. We’ve all seen the consequences when this occurs, and your children are definitely on the losing end.
Marriage and family counselor Dr. Paul Wanio (a contributor to my new book, How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce?) offers some sound advice on how to discipline your children without their developing a negative self-image. His suggestions include:
Focus on limiting your child’s behavior, but not your child’s thoughts and feelings.
If you do not allow your children the space to express who they are and how they feel about the subject at hand, they will repress the communication, but their resentment will incubate and grow.
Remind your children that thoughts and feelings are not “bad,” even when behavior is inappropriate.
The difference is important for them to understand — and for you to remember.
Seek to influence thoughts, to understand and accept feelings and to improve their behavior.
Making a conscious effort in this direction will bring rewards in terms of behavior changes and respect for you as a parent. This is obviously more difficult to do than it sounds, but it is definitely worth the effort. When children feel heard and accepted, they are much less likely to lash out at their parents, siblings, friends or schoolmates.
True discipline should not be thought of as punishment, but as a lesson to teach your child about Life. When you discipline from this mindset, you will come from a supportive perspective and not get caught up in destructive behaviors yourself that come from vindictiveness and resentment.
Families that are dealing with divorce or separation need to pay particular attention to conscious disciplining. Children forced to handle the break-up of their family dynamic may be holding on to a broad range of feelings and thoughts that need to be expressed, accepted, and influenced in a positive direction. I encourage parents to seek out the assistance of a counselor or other professional as soon as they sense any depression or other problem behaviors. This is not a time to forego discipline, which is an essential part of the parenting process. It is a time to pay keen attention to your children to make sure they are moving through the challenges of “change” in their lives with age-appropriate acceptance and behaviors that fall within a normal range for your family.