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Consistent Limits Help Children Survive Divorce

The dangers of inconsistent parenting

"Daddy lets me eat in my room if I want to."

"I don't have a curfew when I'm at Mom's house."

"Mom doesn't make me clear my dinner plate!"

"Dad says it won't hurt me to eat donuts for breakfast."

Do any of the above comments sound familiar to you? If so, then welcome to the limits game. This is probably the most popular way that divorced parents undermine each another, turning their kids against the other parent, and generally stirring up trouble. The limits game is usually justified in a simple way: "When the kids are with me I get to parent them any way I want to"

Here is my advice to divorced parents: If you want to screw up your kids, then play the limits game as much as you can. On the other hand, if you want to give your kids a chance to emerge from the crisis that your divorce represents for them, then quit playing the limits game.

There has been a lot of research on the effects of parental conflict on children's development, including children of divorce. The results of that research are pretty clear: the more intense and ongoing parental conflict is, the more negative the effects on children—emotionally and academically. This is true whether or not parents divorce. In fact, much of this research has focused on parents who are not divorced.

So if parental conflict—and particularly physical violence—is harmful to kids' development, does divorce actually represent a solution in some cases? After all, divorced parents stop living together, so day-to-day conflict (or violence) should no longer be part of their children's daily lives. In my clinical practice I have found this to be only partially true, for while children may no longer witness frequent arguments or violence, the parental war that was "hot" before the divorce can turn into a "cold" war afterward. In that case the effect on the children can be just as bad as if their parents had stayed miserably together.

Children who are subjected to the limits game are children who are subjected to inconsistent parenting, which is well documented as the worst parenting style. These children almost always learn to be manipulative and to try to get around rules that other children have to follow. At school they often become underachievers who either fail to complete homework, or who do a lackadaisical job of it. They act as if they believe—often unconsciously—that "rules are made to be broken" and that authority is not to be taken too seriously. If parents want this for their children, then they should go ahead and engage in a cold war.

How to Stop Playing the Limits Game

Ready to end the cold war? Here is how to do it and help your children stay on a healthy developmental track:

Step 1: Accept differences between you.

If you disagreed a lot about parenting and limits while you were married, those differences probably still exist. Each of you needs to write down your ideas of what reasonable limits are for your children in each of the areas listed below. Keep in mind that the limits you think are reasonable need to be age-appropriate. For example, bedtime for an adolescent would be different than it would be for a young child.


Personal grooming: bathing, brushing teeth, hair length, etc.

Attire, including clothing, jewelry, and makeup

Body piercing

Accessibility to cell phones (including texting) and computers (gaming)

Homework (when to do it, minimum time to spend on it.)

Food (acceptable and unacceptable junk food, etc.)

Money: Allowances versus earned money, access to credit cards.

Step 2: Choose a Mediator

There has to be at least one person you both know, who you both basically trust, and whose opinion you value. Give your lists of limits to this person to read and then set up a time to meet together to go over them. If you can't decide on a mediator, or if no one will agree to help you out by doing this, then choose a counselor (therapist, clergy person) you can agree on.

Step 3: Find the Common Ground

The first thing the mediator needs to do when you meet is to identify those limits you either agree on or almost agree on. These need to be written down on a separate piece of paper and each parent needs to have a copy. This is the foundation for ending the cold war between you.

Step 4: Compromise on all those limits where you have a significant disagreement.

Let the mediator help you with this. Remember: compromise means not getting everything you want but getting some of what you want. The "middle ground" you both agree to will bring stability and consistency to your children's lives and enable them to get back onto a healthy developmental track.

Keep in mind that the above will work only if both parents are ready to stop playing the limits game and end the cold war that is damaging their children. Parents who are willing to engage in the above process consistently report that, in a very short time, their children's behavior is better, they seem happier, and they start doing better in school.

For more information on helping children survive divorce see The Divorced Child: Strengthening Your Family through the First Three Years of Separation.

Copyright 2011 Dr. Joe Nowinski