Challenges with Children’s Behavior Post Divorce

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services

Dear Dr. Mike,

I have been divorced for 18-months now. It wasn’t an ugly split and my ex-husband, and I share custody of the children. He gets them 3-consecutive days, and I get them 4-consecutive days.

The kids, 5- and 8-years-old, at first thought it was fun to have two houses — almost like a vacation. Now, when they get mad or disciplined by me, they immediately retaliate with “I want to go to Dad’s house…” or “Dad would never do that…” Would individual or family therapy help us? Or perhaps a different custody arrangement so they don’t feel as if they have the option to go somewhere else when they don’t like what I have to say? I get the impression they feel as if they are living two separate lives.

Dear Concerned Parent,

As a custody evaluator, I am often perforce in the role of determining visitation and custody arrangements for divorcing families. It would be easy if there were a one-size-fits-all formula to situations like yours, but there is not. Each divorcing or divorced family is unique, and several factors need to be considered in establishing the best possible visitation or custody arrangement — the children’s ages, their temperaments/personalities, their histories with each parent (e.g., was one parent more present or absent in raising the children prior to the divorce), their current relationships with each parent, parental availability, and resources, blended family dynamics, etc.

Research has shown that shared custody is typically best for children; the active presence of a child’s mother and father in a child’s life can facilitate bonding and identity formation, as well as social, emotional, and intellectual growth. Your visitation arrangement is not unusual for children your age and the court understandably usually supports equal time for both parents as much as possible. However, as you write, the frequent back and forth between the two parental homes may be creating problems for your children.

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If your co-parenting relationship with your ex-husband is a strong one, I recommend expressing your concerns to him if you have not already done so. Perhaps the two of you can work together to create a more unified approach to identified problem moments with your children. Even if you and your ex-husband do not see eye-to-eye when it comes to your children or have different parenting styles, things may begin to improve if you are more consistent in how you engage, reward, and consequence your children in both homes. If your co-parenting relationship is, however, not strong, it may be helpful to address your concerns with a mental health professional trained in your area of need. A parenting coordinator is advised for situations like yours.

Beyond your current visitation schedule, keep in mind that it has only been a year and a half since your divorce, and your children may still be adjusting to life as a divorced family. Thus, your children may need to address any struggles they may be having with you or their father or their situation more openly with your support and guidance, or they may ultimately benefit from speaking to a child psychologist.

Making formal changes to a custody agreement can be very difficult to do unless there are significant changes in circumstances or you and your husband are in agreement that changes are needed. If, however, you feel that you have tried everything and things have not improved or have gotten worse for your children, I recommend that you contact your attorney to discuss your options.