9 Discipline Mistakes Divorced Parents Often Make

In a perfect world, divorced parents would be able to co-parent seamlessly. Rules would remain consistent. Consequences would carry over from one home to the next. And both parents would work together to prevent behavior problems before they start.

But of course, most people get divorced because they don’t see eye-to-eye. And differences in parenting styles are a common source of disagreement. But, even if you don’t agree on all parenting issues with your former partner, you can still take steps to teach your child the skills he needs to manage his behavior.

Unfortunately, many parents lose sight of how to best discipline their child when they’re going through a divorce. And all too often, well-intentioned parents make these common mistakes:

Competing to Be the Favorite Parent

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After a separation or a divorce, it can be really tempting to want to be the good guy. So when your child says, “But Mom lets me eat dessert every night,” or “Dad doesn’t make me study spelling words!” you might consider bending your rules.

But doing so only sets you up for failure. Your child might embellish how good he has it at the other house or he may try to pit you against the other parent.

The last thing you want to do is get into a contest over who has the best house. Your child will vote for who has the least amount of rules or who spoils him the most. And those things aren’t in your child’s best interest.

Not Being Honest About a Child’s Behavior

Sometimes, a parent will insist, “He always acts great at my house. I don’t know why he acts out at your house.” But insisting your child is a perfect angel when he’s in your care won’t do anyone any favors.

Don’t collude with your child in an effort to paint him in a more favorable light, either. Sometimes parents will say, “We won’t tell Mom that you got in trouble at school, OK?” Agreeing to keep secrets about his behavior sends an unhealthy message.

Talk openly with your ex about the behavior you’re seeing and the steps you are taking to address it. While the rules and consequences don’t have to be exactly the same in both homes, open communication can be the first step to addressing the problem.

You need to know how often a behavior is happening and which environment it occurs in so you can address it most effectively. So speak up and be honest about what’s going on so you can determine whether a behavior is an isolated incident or an ongoing problem. 

Talking Negatively About the Other Parent’s Discipline

When your child says things like, “Mom let me watch two R-Rated movies this weekend,” you may feel compelled to fill him in on all the other poor choices his mother makes. But talking negatively about the other parent’s choices will actually harm your relationship with your child in the long-run.

Just because you don’t love the other parent doesn’t mean your child shouldn’t. So even when you disagree with the way your former partner parents, expressing your displeasure to your child is inappropriate.

Simply remind your child, “Well at my house, kids don’t watch R-rated movies,” or “My household rules are different than your mother’s rules.”

If your child makes a fair amount of outrageous claims about what he’s allowed to do in the other home, you might say, “I’ll have to talk to your father about that.” That may be the best response if your child is trying to get a reaction out of you.

Feeling Sorry for Your Child

Sometimes, parents start thinking of a child as a victim of divorce. Consequently, they grow lenient with their discipline.

Saying things like, “Well he’s been through so much already. I don’t want to take away his video games,” or “He’s just misbehaving because he’s upset from the divorce. I don’t want to punish him even more,” isn’t a good idea.

Teaching your child that he’s a ‘product of divorce’ will give him a victim mentality. Acknowledge that he may be dealing with many mixed emotions and validate his feelings. Talk about the hardship he may be experiencing, but teach him that tough times shouldn’t be an excuse for bad behavior.

Correct your child’s behavior, but not the emotions. Let him know it’s OK to be mad, afraid, or sad. Give him time to grieve and help him learn how to cope with his uncomfortable emotions in a positive way.

If he’s really struggling to adjust, he may need professional help. If you see some serious behavior changes or mood shifts that last for more than a few weeks, talk to your child’s pediatrician.

But remember that divorce doesn’t necessarily damage kids. If you had a high-conflict relationship, divorce may even be a relief. Sometimes, a child’s behavior will improve after a separation.

Inconsistent Rules and Consequences

Kids need to know that you’re still enforcing the rules and consequences. In fact, consistent discipline will help your child feel safe and secure as he adjusts to stressful situations.

But, keeping things consistent gets complicated after a divorce. You have to remember, did you take away his video game privileges five minutes before he went to the other parent’s house? If so, do you need to enforce that consequence when he gets back?

And clearly, the stress of a divorce is likely to weigh on you as well. As a single parent, you may have more responsibilities that make keeping a consistent schedule and enforcing clear consequences more complicated. 

Emphasizing Discipline at the Other Parent’s House

Sometimes parents underestimate their influence on a child. The non-custodial parent may say things like, “Well there’s no sense in trying to toilet train her when she’s at my house because her father doesn’t work on it at his house,” or “I can’t do anything about the fact that he’s swearing now because his mother lets him at her house.”

While you can’t control what goes on in the other house, you can choose to focus on how you discipline your child when she’s in your home. Put your energy into being a good role model and teaching your child your values during the time that you have.

Even if you aren’t with your child every day, you still have a huge influence on her. You have an opportunity to teach her new skills and help her learn new things every time you’re together.

So rather than waste time complaining the other parent isn’t doing enough or accusing the other parent of undermining all of your progress, put your energy into raising the best child you can with the time you have. 

Overcompensating for the Other Parent

If you think the other parent is too strict, you might be tempted to become a little more lenient. But, you can’t ‘even it out’ by overcompensating for the other parent. It doesn’t work that way.

Whether your ex is stricter or more relaxed should bear little influence on your parenting. It’s important to parent your child the best that you can when he’s in your home.

Trying to overcompensate for the other parent only makes things more confusing for your child. Going between homes where there are two extremes will make things more difficult. 

Using Your Child to Convey Messages

Saying, “Tell Dad not to let your little brother play with your tablet,” or “Tell Mommy you can’t eat so many sweets because it’s bad for your teeth,” puts your child in the middle. And that’s a horrible place for a child to be.

If you want to communicate something to the other parent, do it yourself. And do it directly. Don’t ever ask your child to convey messages back and forth.

And don’t make your child responsible for telling the other parent how to do his job. Your child needs to know his job is to be a kid and the adults are in charge. 

Refusing to Work as a Team

Sometimes, parents grow stubborn when it comes to working together as a team to address problems. But refusing to talk to a therapist because you didn’t pick that person, or not attending a school meeting because you think your ex will blame you, isn’t helpful.

Be open to working with your former partner and any other professionals involved to address behavior problems. At the very least, be willing to listen to concerns and be open to suggestions.

Even if you don’t see those particular behavior problems, or you think the other parent is at fault, listening is the best place to start. Once you show you are open to hearing about the issues, you can start working on solving the problem.

Managing Behavior Problems

You don’t have to be best friends with your ex-spouse to help your child deal with divorce. In fact, some studies show that being good friends with the other parent can be even more confusing for a child. He may struggle to understand why you couldn’t make the relationship work if you’re able to get along so well after you’re separated.

The important thing to remember is that your child needs to maintain a healthy relationship with you. And giving your child healthy discipline after a divorce will help you maintain a good relationship.


Beckmeyer JJ, Coleman M, Ganong LH. Postdivorce Coparenting Typologies and Children's Adjustment. Family Relations Fam Relat. 2014;63(4):526-537. doi:10.1111/fare.12086.

Yarosh S, Chew YC“D, Abowd GD. Supporting parent–child communication in divorced familiesInternational Journal of Human-Computer Studies. 2009;67(2):192-203. doi:10.1016/j.ijhcs.2008.09.005.

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