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When Your Ex-Husband Undermines Your Disciplinary Efforts

"How do I get back on track in my house when my son’s father (we are divorced) undermines my disciplinary efforts?"

There are some families in which the parents’ beliefs about changing their kid’s behavior are so different that their attempts at discipline become more of a problem than a solution. A youngster whose mom is strict but whose dad is a consistent pushover, for example, receives confusing information about what’s expected.

A parent who gives in to his kids’ every demand in the hope of satisfying them almost always finds that the opposite happens: Instead of letting up, the kids continue to push for more and more, looking for a sign of how much is too much.

A similar thing happens if the moms and dads can’t decide how to discipline and set limits on their kids. It’s healthy for kids to see how their mom and dad reach a compromise or settle a disagreement if it’s done peacefully and effectively. But if the parents can’t reach an agreement, the kids’ behavior often gets worse as they search for the reassurance of stable boundaries to their lives.

In those situations, the main issue of using discipline to teach kids appropriate behavior gets lost in the battles between the mom and dad for an illusion of control. The kids become confused and respond by continuing to act out, both to assert their own power and to figure out which rules are really important.

Realize that disagreeing with your ex about discipline is normal and inevitable. It doesn’t mean that you are incompatible as co-parents. It does mean that you are not clones of each other. Don’t let “lack of agreement” evolve into more than it is. Agree to disagree.

Unfair fighting is never a good life lesson. Witnessing moms and dads sniping, bullying, screaming or giving the cold shoulder is frightening to kids, and teaches them to avoid or to abuse disagreements. Don’t go there, no matter how tempting it is to hit below the belt.

Decide in advance (as in right now!) what’s really important in your family. I’m sure that you and your ex can agree on at least a handful of issues that you’ll always concur are important and should be handled in a certain manner. Many families consider health (e.g., wearing bicycle helmets, banning substance use, etc.), education (e.g., completing class work and homework in an appropriate manner), respect (at home, school and in the public), and honesty to be “givens.”

The bottom line is that the best disciplinary decision is made – not who made it. This is not about notches in the gun belt — it’s about giving consequences that will lower your youngster’s frequency of inappropriate behavior and raise the odds of acceptable behavior in the future, pure and simple. If you feel that your ex is working against you, try giving a preset signal that means “we need to talk.”

Forming a united front on discipline is often more easily said than done. Here are some ideas that may help:

1. Agree on a signal to alert both of you that the conversation is – or is about to get — too heated and needs to be halted.

2. Make a commitment both to honor and act on the signal. You might walk away and have an agreed-upon cooling-off period …or set a time to revisit your differences in opinion …or write down what you’re feeling and later share it with your ex (who might better understand where you’re coming from).

3. Be prepared for behavioral problems. Remember that many changes in kids’ behaviors are linked to their stage of normal development. Talk ahead of time about how each of you would handle predictable situations. That way you’ll have fewer conflicts when they occur.

4. Create your own family “rulebook.” Write clear, reasonable, attainable rules (for both parents and kids) about what behavior is acceptable and what isn’t. Your family, like a football team, will be more successful when you have clear guidelines.

5. Don’t be trapped by your past. That includes both your own childhood and the style of discipline you may have used in an earlier marriage. Look for ways to explore (with your ex) your unquestioned assumptions about discipline. One good way to do that is to take a parenting class together. That does two things: It helps you realize how differently other people respond to the same situations you face as mother and father, and it gives you and your ex a common base of information from which to develop your shared approaches to discipline.

6. Don’t go overboard in trying to avoid arguments. Having small squabbles in front of the kids – and then resolving them peacefully – can actually be good for them. It shows that it’s possible to disagree with someone, and that relationships don’t end just because people are quarreling with each other.

7. Remember your successes. You and your ex have undoubtedly successfully negotiated many situations with each of you both giving and taking a little until you reached some middle ground. You can be successful at ending arguments in front of the kids if you really want to. It won’t be easy, but it will be rewarding. And your kids will be the ultimate winners.

8.    Lastly, remember that a weaker parenting plan supported by both mom AND dad is much better than a stronger plan supported by only one parent.

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