Ask An Expert / Divorce

What happens to kids when divorced parents have different rules?

Conflicting standards at two houses can cause confusion

Melanie A. Fernandez, PhD, ABPP

I'm a divorced dad who's having trouble getting my children to eat healthy food and to be polite, with "please" and "thank you" statements. They're not required to do these things at their mother's and grandparents' homes. What can I do when levels of discipline are different at each parent's house and each of their grandparents' houses? The children are ages 4 and 5, and I'm worried that they are influenced by their mother's negative comments about me.

Consistency is so important in helping children learn. That said, children are able to learn from consistency within a particular household or with a particular parent, even if rules are different elsewhere. Make sure you are very clear about what good habits you’d like to see (for example, saying please and thank you). Remind your children of these expectations when they arrive to your home. Posting your expectations, offering a visual reminder, would be even better. Then, make sure to make a big deal when they follow your rules, such as by praising them for their politeness. New behaviors can be harder to learn when you are practicing them in fewer places.

If you’re concerned about your relationship with your kids, make sure to spend time with each of them that is purely for fun, shows them they are worthwhile, and is separate from time that you are spending working on manners, getting them ready for bedtime, or doing homework. Also remember that the way children show stress is often in their behavior. Changes in their manner toward you could reflect their adjustment to the divorce rather than being a response to negative comments about you by their mother.