In general, how couples decide to discipline their children can be a tricky topic to navigate, so if you are divorcing or separating, it can complicate things even more.
I know this from experience, as I have successfully co-parented my two children with their father, for 6 years. A further complication is that he lives in Europe, so we are actually co-parenting from different countries as well. I’ve dedicated a whole blog on this topic, which you can read here if you want more tips on this.
Over the years, I’ve developed a lot of insight into this particular issue, both as a Divorce Coach and based on my own experience. So, I’ve written below my top tips for discipline and rule-setting when you are co-parenting, to try and help others to avoid common co-parenting pitfalls.
1. Establish or reiterate your household rules
It’s likely that if you have been parenting your children for a while, you will already have certain household rules in place. These might include those that revolve around their physical safety; such as not talking to strangers, not having sugary treats before dinner, not going on the computer unsupervised and so on. Then there are emotional rules, such as being respectful of you both, being kind, being considerate etc. So as not to confuse the children, try and stick with your pre-existing household rules. Obviously, there will be times when new rules need to be introduced, to fit with your new setup, particularly, if you become a blended family with new partners and children.
2. Stay on the same page
It’s really important to try and stay on the same page as much as possible. This was particularly tricky as I was co-parenting from a different country to my ex-husband. We made this work by giving each other the heads up about impending conversations and agreeing to mirror each other's views on a united front with the children. As the main care provider, I would often delegate some of the disciplines to him so we were sharing the parental responsibility more equally and also to move away from a good cop bad cop scenario.
3. If you don’t agree tell your co-parent not your children
If you dislike a rule that your ex has set in their home, you should discuss this with them directly and don’t use your children as messengers or as an outlet to vent. Try and have a business-like discussion with your ex and work out what exactly you don’t agree with in terms of the rules they have set or the way they are enforced. Have this conversation away from the children, and with them as the focal point. Remember, this isn’t about you, this is about them and ensuring they are developing in the way you would both like them to grow. You can tap into resources for this such as your children’s school, charities such as Place2be or through coaching.
4. Consistency is key
If you both have different sets of rules in your homes, you risk confusing your children or they may even take advantage of this, which could lead to misbehaviour. By setting consistent rules, boundaries and expectations, your children will know what’s expected and that they may face consequences if they break the clear rules you have set. This can be really difficult if you are merging a blended family because your new partner and their children might already have their own rules which contrast with those you have. A further layer of complication is if you have a biological child with your new partner as they will be confused if each parent's children have a different set of rules. Try to reach an agreement that works for you all and be respectful of each other in the process. It’s not going to be easy, and there’s never one right answer, but communication is key and useful in working through this.
5. Don’t play good cop bad cop
Don’t fall into the good cop, bad cop cycle. It’s easily done, particularly with regards to rule-setting and discipline, and when children become teenagers, however, it’s not going to help in the long run. You might feel compelled to appease your child, however, this will likely impact their behaviour negatively as they might not think you’ll follow through in terms of enforcing consequences.
If you are or become a blended family by introducing new partners and their children, a good strategy for discipline and rule-setting is to have ‘house’ rules rather than change them depending on each set of children. This will prevent any unfair treatment and keep things consistent. It will also help your children transition between the various households. Be careful of favouritism. It’s natural for you to have a different relationship with your biological children and your new partner's children, but favouritism can create jealousy and tension between them and lead to arguments or misbehaving. It’s a good idea to give your children plenty of opportunities to tell you how they feel. Create an environment where there is an open forum where your kids can talk to you about how they are feeling, what’s working, what they are finding difficult and how to express to you if and when change is needed.