Parenting Plans and Behavioral Management Strategies

Robert J. Loveland, Ph.D.

One of the most difficult issues for children following their parents’ divorce is learning how to successfully negotiate the parenting plan transitions between households as they travel back and forth between parental homes. Most children at a very young age are able to learn and adapt to the fact that there are different behavioral expectations in various settings. For example, children quickly learn that certain home behaviors may not be allowed in the kindergarten classroom. What they might be allowed to do in their own backyard might not be appropriate at their grandparents’ home. Expectations for their public behavior at the grocery store are often quite different from what they are allowed to do in the family room. This type of adaptation is not particularly stressful for most children.

However, mom’s home and dad’s home are both “home,” and in a surprisingly large number of cases, the two households are run in dramatically different fashion. This is fairly logical from an adult and marital point of view. We have all heard the old phrase that, “Opposites attract.” With many marriages, particularly those that end in divorce, the phrase should actually read, “Opposites attract and then they fight.” The divorce process does not alter the differences in thought, feeling, behavior, and opinion that led to the demise of the marriage. Couples tend to divorce in the same style in which they were married. The personal differences that led to the divorce are simply carried over into the post-divorce period, along with any dysfunction that may have been created during the marriage. Consequently, children frequently find themselves going back and forth between homes in which there are dramatically different expectations for their behavior as well as their day-to-day routines. Given that mom’s home and dad’s home are both supposed to feel like home, the disparity between households can be confusing to the children at best and downright disruptive to their adjustment at worst.

This dilemma for the children is not as daunting if their parents have agreed to one of the more conservative, alternating weekend formats. It can still be disruptive, but if the children are only spending 4-6 overnights a month with the non-custodial parent, the stability of their primary living arrangement often keeps their behavior on track. However, if their parents have agreed to a more liberal parenting plan format, especially one involving shared equal placement (50-50), the parents owe it to their children to make every attempt to bring the two households into some reasonable alignment with each other. This can be done even if the parents do not have a particularly positive relationship. It can be done under post-divorce circumstances that involve genuine “co-parenting” where parents are able to communicate and collaborate, but it can also be accomplished in more “parallel parenting” arrangements where steps are taken to minimize contact and communication between parents. Regardless of the quality of the parents’ post-divorce arrangement, the trick for the parents is to recognize that they both very likely share the goal of producing children who are normally socialized, who are able to predict the logical consequences of their behavioral choices, and who generally know how to navigate their world in a positive and successful fashion. If those goals for their children are commonly shared, laying aside differences at the adult level becomes much easier as the parents focus on presenting their children with similar parent/child experiences in both households. Some parents can do this type of negotiation on their own. Many parents need some professional assistance, either with a jointly trusted mental health professional or with the help of a parenting coordinator. Either way, children from divorced families do much better in the long run if they have been allowed to maintain a family sense of “one for all and all for one” as they go back and forth between mom and dad. Their parents may no longer share this unified feeling, but if both parents are willing to support the children’s relationship with the other parent, assuming that the other parent is appropriate and safe, the children can maintain their sense of family identity. The willingness to do so is actually a statutory consideration in Oregon (please see ORS 107.137).

One of the most powerful ways to maintain this family sense of identity is for the parents to agree on common routines, common rules and expectations, and common consequences between households. This is the essence of behavioral management strategies for children in any family. Even in happy marriages parents must learn to blend their differences into some sort of a jointly presented “united front” to avoid confusing the children. Attempting to do so with two households in a divorced family may present some additional challenges, but the task remains the same. Knowing what is expected gives children a tremendous sense of security under any family arrangement.

This may sound complicated for divorced parents, especially if the parents’ history of effective communication has been spotty at best, but proper behavioral management is really not that difficult. Allow me to explain.

Basic behavioral management of children from birth and beyond involves discipline, which means to teach, not to punish. Punishment is needed sometimes, but the various forms of punishment are only a small part of overall behavioral management of children. Teaching children how to behave rather than how not to behave is an important goal within the parent/child relationship. That goal is typically met by allowing children to experience the logical consequences of their behavioral choices.

Most children do best in their development if rules and expectations are clear, and if the logical consequence for breaking a rule is known in advance and equally clear. Since rules are designed to teach, they need to be stated so they tell a child specifically what to do, not what not to do. Simply telling a child to “be good” is not specific enough. Telling a child to use their fork or spoon to eat is preferable to telling them not to eat with their fingers. Most parents typically state their rules in the negative; “don’t do this and don’t do that.” Learning to flip things around and state rules in the positive is a worthwhile task.

In regard to logical consequences, the adult world is a world of logical consequences. Most adults can predict exactly what might happen with any behavior they might choose. However, for many children, they live in a world of contrived consequences where the end result has no logical relation to the behavior. For example, on the day you might be reading this article, there are children all across the country who will be spanked for not eating their dinner, yelled at for not eating their dinner, or perhaps lose TV privileges or go to bed early for the same reason. None of those consequences has anything to do with eating. None of those consequences would happen to an adult if he or she chose to skip dinner. The trick for parents is to expose the children to a consequence that is directly related to their behavior. That will rarely if ever involve being yelled at or hit.

Rules for children occur in the context of four cardinal rules for parents, but parents should not expect to achieve perfection in any of these areas:

  1. Parents remain calm to the point of sainthood. A lack of calmness robs parents of their natural authority.
  2. Parents remain consistent to the point of sainthood. A lack of consistency with consequences or a lack of consistency over time completely neutralizes the impact of logical consequences.
  3. Parents do not issue warnings but simply apply the predetermined logical consequence. Once a plan is working well, warnings can be an effective deterrent, but only if the child has clearly learned appropriate behavior.
  4. Parents recognize that it is always easier to predict and avoid unwanted behaviors than it is to deal with them once they occur.

I have heard at various workshops that an average family of four has approximately 1500 rules, although most of them remain largely unspoken. The more important and spoken day-to-day rules tend to number around 20 for younger children and perhaps 10-12 for teenagers. Most of those day-to-day family rules tend to relate to three generalities: be respectful, be responsible and safe, and be fun to be around.

More practically speaking, I discovered in 40 years of working with children and their parents that daily rules occur in the following eight areas:

  1. Basic schedules, routines, and hygiene behaviors.
  2. Table manners.
  3. Chores.
  4. Care of one’s own belongings.
  5. Care of other people’s belongings.
  6. School and homework procedures.
  7. Media behaviors related to television, computers, video games, telephones, and social network technology.
  8. Social rules, which minimally involve expectations related to respectful treatment of family members, obedience, lying, anger management, and whereabouts and safety.

The rules in these eight areas obviously look different for a 4-year-old than they do for a 14-year-old. Well-run families tend to revise their rules at least yearly to account for increased development and maturity and to include age appropriate expectations. During the children’s younger years, the rules may have to be revised even more frequently.

For divorced parents who are trying to make things easier for their children as they travel back and forth between parental homes, the task regarding behavioral management becomes quite straightforward. In my parent coordination work with divorced parents who share this goal for their children, the following steps are taken over the course of perhaps 4 to 5 meetings:

  1. Both parents generate a list of their own household rules and expectations in any of the eight areas mentioned above that apply to their children. This first task can be very challenging for one or both parents because most parents have never taken the time to commit their rules to paper. However, this is 90% of the battle and things go more smoothly once this task is accomplished.
  2. Common rules are identified and the wording is finalized so that all of the rules are stated in a positive format that tells the children what to do.
  3. Significantly different or non-existent but necessary rules are discussed, revised, and eventually finalized. This process often involves both parents “agreeing to disagree” so that one common rule can apply. This can be time consuming but 95% of the battle is won once commonality if found in each area.
  4. Once the day-to-day rules are finalized, each rule is discussed in the context of finding a logical consequence for each rule to which both parents can agree and which both parents can enforce within their own home. This step is usually quite easy because logical consequences make sense to most parents regardless of their particular parenting style.
  5. The parents then agree to implement the plan and joint meetings are held to work out any problems that might arise. In my experience, no one ever hits 100% at this point, but even minor differences between households are infinitely better than major differences, disputes, and confusion, all of which commonly occur.

The end result of this work for the children can be quite rewarding for the parents as well. Children find themselves spending time in two homes, but they find that both homes have sufficient similarity such that they can really enjoy the differences. Fathers offer things to their children that mothers cannot. Mothers offer things that fathers cannot. What both parents can offer is the calm sense of security that develops with children when they know what is expected and when they can achieve positive success in their day-to-day lives in both homes.