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Establishing rules for one household is difficult for many families, but when divorce occurs, establishing new rules for both households can be even more challenging. “One of the biggest challenges for split families is consistency,” said Jamie Rishikof, Massachusetts-based licensed psychologist. “It is highly inadvisable to have two different sets of rules. That can become a real invitation for splitting and alliances, as well as other relational problems.” To avoid this, ensure that both households offer a secure and consistent environment for your children when setting new rules by involving your children in the rule-setting process and working together as co-parents.
Reaching a Compromise
Divorce offers a significant time of change for both you and your children. A new house, a new school or even new friends can alter the emotions your children are facing. During this time, consistency is key, which means new rules may be in order to maintain a healthy and structured household. Rishikof advises divorced parents to focus on compromise, despite their differences, when establishing new rules for their children. “Typically, parents will not always see eye to eye on some issues regarding the kids,” he said. “Although difficult, I suggest parents hammer out a set of mutual rules that reflects a compromise.”
Consider your views and beliefs about chores, homework, athletic participation and curfew while also considering your ex-spouse’s views. Don't create rules specifically meant to undermine your spouse. If rules are developed as revenge to the other parent, children will likely misbehave, said Liz Rampy, South-Carolina-based family therapist and kindergarten teacher. “It will be very unsettling to your children,” she said. “For example, if a parent says, ‘Your mother lets you stay up way too late. Bedtime here will be two hours earlier,’ this is a recipe for disaster.” If a compromise is too difficult, parents should seek outside counseling or mediation for help determining new rules. “Kids do better with routine and consistency,” said Rishikof. “And family relationships suffer without it.”
When setting new rules, consider soliciting your child’s input so that she feels as if her opinion matters in the midst of all the changes divorce can bring. First, let her know that rules are necessary, and that is not negotiable; however, stress that rules are not always a negative aspect of life. “Rules should be a way of positively structuring a living environment,” said Rampy.
Transition into setting these new rules by having a family meeting to invite your children to participate in the development of the rules. “The parent sets the parameters by asking [in an age-appropriate discussion] what will keep family members physically and emotionally safe,” said Rampy. “Parents can generally turn the conversation to create rules they want to set.”
If your child disagrees, acknowledge her concerns and fully explore the rationale behind the new rule. For example, setting a curfew for 9 p.m. on a school night ensures that she gets the rest she needs to perform well academically and socially the next day.
Evaluating the New Rules
Divorce presents many challenges for families coping with feelings about the separation and changes that are occurring within their living situation. Although new rules may be necessary, truly evaluate why some rules are changing. “If it is beneficial to the family, it should be done,” said Rampy. “It will be detrimental if they are making rules just to ‘start fresh,’ though.”
Ask your children about the ‘old’ rules and the ‘new’ rules to determine each one’s level of appropriateness. When given the opportunity to hear their opinions, parents may see that some rules are too lenient or strict and that some are even unnecessary. When a new rule is not negotiable, provide your children with choices. “Things will go more smoothly when children are allowed to make reasonable choices,” said Rampy. “For example, a parent can say, ‘You may have a friend over one night on the weekend. Would you like for it to be Friday or Saturday?’”
Even with clearly established rules in place, keep in mind that children may have a difficult time remembering and adjusting to the new rules following the divorce. “Adults often think that children should remember something if they have been told once,” said Rampy. “This is unrealistic. That would be equivalent to a supervisor telling a new employee all of the procedures on the first day of the job and expecting him to remember everything.”
The bottom line? Be patient yet consistent when enforcing the new rules. Regardless of the rules, it is likely your children will test the limits. “If the rules are more strict than they were before, parents should expect some resistance,” said Rampy. “Children may break the rules as a way of displaying their anger about the divorce itself. They may also want to test the waters to see what the parent is really going to enforce.”