I’m a divorced mother of a 6-year-old. My ex is always giving in to whatever my daughter wants. When she comes back to me I feel like the bad cop because I enforce boundaries. My ex says I’m too strict, and my daughter isn’t so happy with me either. What should I do?
Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)
When parents are separated and a child is being raised in two different households there is always a tendency to try and compensate for what the other parent is doing wrong or to compensate for the short amount of time you have with your child by being more indulgent than you would otherwise be.
So the first rule is: don’t parent in reaction to what your ex is doing. Stick with your best instincts and work to create a balanced approach in your relationship with your daughter. You won’t improve your daughter’s upbringing by either being stricter because your ex is too lenient or by being more lenient because your ex is too strict. A too-strict relationship with your daughter won’t remedy the too lenient one she has with her father. It will only mean she has two unbalanced relationships instead of just one.
Next, to the extent that it’s possible, try to unite with your ex in terms of the ways you both parent your daughter. Try to agree on bedtimes, morning routines, and guidelines about play dates and even the ways you set boundaries and give consequences. Perhaps you can ask him to suggest a parenting book he likes and then read it to find common ground.
After a discussion or mutual reading, I suggest writing down some points that you think are most important. Present it to him by letting him know this is just a first step in the two of you being unified and ask him to freely change or add to anything you’ve written. There is a lot of power in having some basic points written down that you both agree on.
Lastly, the “bad cop” feeling you’re having can be mitigated by doing your best to set boundaries in a compassionate and sympathetic tone. Parents often feel it necessary to give consequences and enforce boundaries in a tone that tells their child how angry, upset, or disappointed they are. It’s as though they don’t trust that the consequence or boundary will be enough to change the behavior they don’t like so they need to add an additional emotional motivator.
But the emotionally charged tone when giving a consequence is a form of emotional manipulation that undermines your relationship and the autonomy of your daughter.
I suggest trying to do two things simultaneously: be firm in your setting of boundaries and consequences, and while doing this acknowledge your child’s autonomy, respect her decisions, and keep any judgment of them out of your voice. Let the boundary do the work of shifting the behaviors –not emotional manipulation.
Here are a couple of examples of how that might sound:
“Yes, I realize your father puts away your toys for you when you’re at his house, and if you can get him to do that for you that’s between the two of you. But when you’re in my house you need to clean up after yourself before you do anything else.”
“Yes, I realize you hate sitting in timeout. Timeouts aren’t supposed to be fun. But if you decide to call Mommy “stupid” you’re going to get a timeout. You’re the only one who can control what you say, not me. I just control the consequences.”
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