Setting Healthy Limits For Children In A Divided Household

Wednesday March 02, 2016


As we negotiated the final details of her divorce, a client asked us to forward a document to her husband’s attorney titled “Household Rules.”  On its face, it was a set of meticulously-drawn guidelines for how the children were to conduct their lives at home.  It set forth parameters for everything from acceptable food choices (one serving of carbs per day) to conduct, such as the requirement that children must always tell the truth and must always share their toys.  Each transgression had a corresponding sentence in the time-out chair.

Well-intentioned, our client’s goal was a predictable set of behavioral guidelines her young children could follow now that their time would be divided between two households.  It is natural—and laudatory—for divorcing parents to seek to implement order for their children.  Indeed, children in transition need order and predictable limits.  However, we worried that a set of prescribed rules—especially ones with a punitive tenor like the ones in our client’s list—would not achieve her goals.  We were correct. The father dismissed the rules claiming (perhaps justifiably) that they represented his former wife’s indictment of him as an overly permissive parent and her passive-aggressive attempt to control his parenting time.  Instead of fostering a discussion of the consistent limits that these children so badly needed, the proposed rules caused each party to dig in to his or her defensive posture.

The critically important topic of consistency for children in divided households arises frequently; yet, the matrimonial bar and the therapeutic community give it little attention.  This is a missed opportunity for divorcing families.  Setting limits is important for all children, but—because of the upheaval it engenders—divorcing parents face an even greater challenge establishing consistent boundaries.  To better guide families, we began to explore the issues surrounding the wisdom and efficacy of setting household rules.  Are prescribed rules (and consequent punishments) the best way to establish effective boundaries for children?  And in divided households, is there a more effective way to create consistent expectations for children to lessen the turmoil incident to their transition from one household to the other and to strengthen children’s sense of order, security, predictability, and self-esteem?

My initial research began at home.  I posed the question to my five-year old: “What rules do we have in our home?”  Her response: “Um . . . we can’t bring squirrels home from the park and keep them as pets?”  I nod.  I confess, the answer I was hoping for was “none,” or at least, “not many,” but, in fairness, we had recently debated the appropriateness of keeping squirrels in our New York City apartment.  My older daughter was a more reliable source in my deductive research.  She acknowledged that, even though she knows we don’t watch TV during the week, and we have to complete homework and chores, she sees those more as “just the way it is,” and not as “rules.”  Does this make us indulgent parents whose children run amok?  On the contrary, our children both described us as “strict.”  They know their responsibilities around the house and our behavioral expectations of them.  But they didn’t perceive these expectations as arising out of a rigid set of rules.

I. What’s Wrong With Rules?

Why not make rules when the advice is clear: children need clear consistent boundaries; don’t we need rules to enforce boundaries?  Perhaps not.  In his New York Times article, “How to Raise a Creative Child: Step One, Back Off,” Adam Grant, Ph.D. distinguishes between rules and broader principles of behavior or moral and ethical expectations.  Rules both restrict children and put a damper on independent thinking.  They are geared toward avoiding punishment instead of affirmatively doing the right thing, so they don’t ask children to stop and think about why they should behave in a specific way.  In a sense, rules are too easy. They create the impression that all you have to do is follow the rules (for example, refrain from hitting your sister) to achieve good behavior.  Conversely, reinforcing broader moral principles asks children to think about their behavioral code for themselves. Grant reports, “parents of ordinary children have six or more rules while parents of highly creative children have fewer than one rule.”  “By limiting rules,” Grant writes, “parents encouraged their children to think for themselves.”  He cites Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile, who notes that parents of creative children tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules.”

Does that mean that enforcing a rule is going the suck the creativity out of your child?  Of course not.  Depending on the culture of your family and the temperament of your children, spelled-out rules may be appropriate, but experts caution parents to make them with care.  Dan Kindlon, Ph.D. author of Too Much of a Good Thing, Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age recommends that parents “pick three limits, or rules, about which they are always consistent.”  The rules should be clear and have a clear consequence.  He recommends discussing rules and consequences with children at a family meeting with this caveat: “Families are not democracies, and those meetings are not democratic.  We should listen carefully to our kid’s opinions, but the final word is ours” (203).  Finally, the rules should apply to parents, too.  This is simple modeling: you can’t tell your children not to text at the dinner table while you are furiously texting at the dinner table.  You will lose credibility faster than your teenager can move his thumbs to text “hypocrite.”

II. How do I set healthy limits or ethical principles of behavior in a divided family?

As if parenting in 2016 weren’t hard enough, you’re faced with parenting across two households, which may have very different standards of behavior.  How can your former spouse and you achieve consistent boundaries in both households?  First, step back and take inventory of your personal parenting style.  Recently, I attended a talk by New York City psychotherapist Sean Grover based on his book When Kids Call the Shots.  He asked parents to dig up their own backgrounds and personality styles to identify traits that may be contributing to parenting pitfalls.  He sees three basic patterns that make it difficult for parents to set firm boundaries and may promote backlash behavior in children: guilt, anxiety, and the need to fix everything.  Any of these sound familiar?  My own search unearthed plenty of guilt.  My older daughter had an undiagnosed illness that caused her years of pain, and nearly every day I remind myself of all I could have done differently.  My job: don’t overindulge.  By being aware of my tendency to parent from guilt, I can recognize that I’m not doing my child any favors by reliving the past.

Let’s return to our client with the list of rules.  Her parenting pitfall is anxiety, and understandably so.  For the first time, she was faced with days when she would not be supervising her children.  Her fear of letting someone else—even if he is the children’s father—make choices that she had always made was terrifying to her.  She needed to recognize that attempting to manage every aspect of her children’s lives going forward would not benefit either her children or her; indeed, it would cause her children to feel that she didn’t believe in their ability to be independent and, worse, that they may not be safe with their father.  By first reflecting on the source of your parenting choices, you can arrive at healthier limits for your children.

Second, write it down.  You don’t need to post The Smith Family Constitution in your living room, but getting your parenting priorities on paper will clarify what’s important to you and enable you to clearly share your values with your former spouse and children.  When you frame boundaries as ethical principles, you will likely find you’re your former spouse and you have more common ground than you think.  After talking with our client about what was truly important to her, we helped her shift her list of rules into a broader document that she, ultimately, shared with her former spouse.  The result: she felt a huge sense of relief that her values were presented in a comprehensive way and, since he didn’t feel that she was dictating a set of rules, he respected and agreed to adhere to her set of principles.

Third, listen and eat pancakes!  During this time of upheaval, your children need to feel heard.  In our house, we have long implemented something called our “talking place.”  This is a safe place where children can simply talk, and my husband or I will listen.  Not judge.  Not argue.  Not reprimand.  Just listen.  Dr. Grover implemented a form of this in his house called, “the pancake cure.”  At wit’s end with his own child, he sought professional advice, and, after his lengthy tale of tantrums and frustrations, the professional prescribed the following: “take your daughter to breakfast three times a week . . . Let her talk, listen closely to what she has to say.  No advice, no opinions or guidance, just listen.”  Dr. Grover reported being astonished at the brevity of advice (and the high price of the session) but he did it, and it worked.

Just before her fifth birthday, my younger daughter called me to her talking place inconsolable.  As her rant escalated, “you love Charlotte more than me, and you never listen to me, you only listen to Charlotte, and you really don’t love me at all . . .” It was hard to keep still.  I wanted to cite examples that would show her that her feelings weren’t accurate.  But I held my tongue and out it came, “I’m afraid that when I turn five, I won’t be your special baby anymore and you’ll forget about me.”  There was much hugging and I realized that, had I jumped in to invalidate her feelings, I never would have made room for the root of her fear to reveal itself.  Sometimes, we just have to keep quiet and listen.

Finally, remember to give yourself a break.  Divorce is likely the most stressful event your family will ever face. And the wonderful thing about parenting is that you can make mistakes.  Use them to show your children that mistakes are how we learn; we can backtrack and start again.  By caring for yourself at this difficult time, you demonstrate to your children that they are worthy of self-care; by forgiving yourself for past mistakes, you show your children that they can move forward untethered to the past; by respecting yourself with all your flaws, you show your children that they do not have to be perfect to receive love.  If fatigue and stress have muddied up your boundaries, take a step back, reflect and start again. We are with you in the struggle.

Summer Camp

Friday August 21, 2015


Like many parents in the Northeast, this June I stood, broad smile etched on my face waving cheerfully as the bus rolled away taking with it my eleven-year-old daughter for seven weeks of summer camp. I congratulated myself for waiting until the bus was well out of sight before digging in my pockets for tissues and blubbering to my husband about the horrible dangers that await her. There are the highways, of course; and then there’s the sun—no one in Maine will tell her to reapply sunscreen!—and the wildlife, though I admit I can’t name what lives in Maine, except moose (are they dangerous?). Then doubt settles in—would a better parent be down at the SoHo REI purchasing a tent and maps of the National Parks for a long family road trip? None of us has seen the Grand Canyon! I imagine for a moment the summer nights, all of us playing card games and eating s’mores in folding chairs, a campfire crackling away. Should I be teaching my children to fish and tie knots and purify creek water? After a few days the pictures roll in, and I can see my daughter laughing with friends (she doesn’t look sunburned). Soon the letters come with plenty of exclamation points and capital letters: “My bunk is PERFECT and I am not at all homesick! BEST SUMMER EVER!!” and I realize that she is having experiences she could never have at home. And, let’s face it, I have no idea how to erect a tent or catch a fish.

The summer camp ritual tests even the most resolved parents. All of us want to be sure that our children are nurtured and have a healthy balance of family, friends, play, and enrichment. For divorcing parents the concerns run even deeper. Time with your children becomes all the more precious when it is shared with another parent and his or her family. Summer days are scarce; packed schooldays arrive far too quickly. This time of year, concerns surrounding summer camp flood our office. Should the children go to camp? Or is time with the extended family in California more important? If they go to camp, what kind? Day camp? Four weeks? Seven weeks? And how to divide the remainder of the summer? Does time with dad in June have the same value as time with mom in August? How much time do they need to ready themselves for the new school year? To summer camp or not to summer camp is a family decision, and I have seen wonderful, educated, enlightened parents on both sides of the divide. But, as a former skeptic, I would like to make the case for summer camp.

Children thrive away from parents. Two years ago before I sent my own child to camp, I would have told you that this is a lie—rubbish tossed around by over privileged folks who don’t want to be bothered. But it’s a truth that I witnessed in my own child and one that Michael Thompson, Ph.D. illustrates convincingly in his book Homesick and Happy. Thompson asks parents to recall their favorite childhood memories. Chances are, he suggests, that they are times without parents. Sure enough, I recall long summer days at Avila Beach spraying myself down with baby oil and Sun-In, not a parent nor a bottle of sunscreen in sight. And those were the days when I solved problems on my own (who has gas money?) and created life-long friendships. The memories are so poignant that I return every year with my own children and bore them with stories of people and places that I remember from the old Avila Beach. I’m guessing that my daughter, too, will remember those evenings at camp, the ones she already describes as time spent “laughing her guts out,” the talk of boys and music and whatever it is kids talk about only to other kids. There is no doubt that our children need us. We are the solid foundation; we are home base. It’s just that the growth, the risk-taking, the small steps toward independence, the “let’s see how brave I can be” moments—often happen without us.

Our children are growing up in a time when they are over-monitored, over-scheduled, and over-pressured. These pressures can be magnified for children of divorcing parents. Custody litigation may bring meetings with psychiatrists or psychologists, court appearances, and huge doses of stress for both parents and children. Even in relatively low-conflict divorces, negotiating two households adds a layer of management for children that results in added stress. Camp can represent a welcome relief from schedules and pressures of school and home. Thompson describes camp “downtime.” “This unscheduled downtime is, perhaps, the most important time of the camp day because the stakes are low and the sense of time is so vast . . . Camp offers a profound change of pace, a sense of time profoundly different from either school or the scheduled family” (55). Thompson argues that this unscheduled time and space is where creativity, imagination, and growth happen.

And let’s not forget that parents need “downtime,” too! None of us likes to admit that we benefit from time away from our children, but all parents need personal time, especially during divorce. You are experiencing a major shift in your life, and there is no shame in needing time for some physical and emotional housekeeping. Take it. I use summer camp time for cleaning drawers and closets, schlepping outgrown clothes and toys to Goodwill, organizing files, and weeding out the truckloads of schoolwork from the previous year. I also use this time for personal maintenance. Every summer, I take a course at Kripalu near our home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I pick some area of personal growth that interests me and take some time to focus just on me. When the school year starts, I feel refreshed and ready for another hectic season. Set a goal for yourself at the start of summer. It may be to lose some unwanted pounds, to start a meditation practice, to get a bike and ride forty miles, read that stack of books you’ve been collecting, take a cooking class. Whatever it is, do something that helps you connect to yourself. You are the center of your family, and everyone will benefit when you feel your own power.

We want to hold on tightly to our children. Divorcing parents may feel the need to hold on even more tightly. Feelings of guilt, loss, and regret can team up against you. These feelings gather up all of your mistakes and light them up in Technicolor before your eyes. “You’d better get it right from here on!” they shout. Believe me, none of us is perfect; we cannot and should not be! So much of what we do as parents is to set an example. When we care for ourselves, our children learn that self-care is important; they deserve respect. When we make mistakes and acknowledge them, children learn that they don’t need to be perfect; they can take risks. And letting children go shows them that we believe in them, we trust them to follow their own path. As Thompson observes, “We cannot give our children confidence or independence, they must get those on their own.” Just as we did.

“Yours in the struggle”

Tuesday March 25, 2014

Years ago, I had the honor and good fortune to meet the late Richard Avedon. I was a fledgling attorney at the time and was in awe of his eminence. His affable, self-effacing nature took me by surprise; he was one of those individuals who had the remarkable ability to make you feel as though you are the only person in the room. So when he asked to photograph me . . . well, let’s just say I was astonished. It was a humbling experience, and his photographs of my young, somewhat bewildered-looking self remain my most prized possessions. In addition to those pictures, he imparted to me two pearls: one was a story he told. We were discussing the perils of New York City private school applications, and he explained that he had tried to distance his children from the intense competition that the process can engender. Instead, he elevated creativity above all for his children. He said that he would shout from the window as his children were leaving for school, “Be creative!” I loved the story and have tried to maintain the same perspective with my own children. A second was his valediction. Each of Mr. Avedon’s letters or notes was signed, “Yours in the struggle.” To me, it felt like an acknowledgment that the very prospect of getting through the day was often difficult, and yet, we were all in it together. It made it all easier knowing that someone understood and was right there with me “in the struggle”; it always put a smile on my face. I hope that Mr. Avedon won’t mind my adopting his valediction here, for it is meant in the same spirit of camaraderie.

In creating this page, I hope to share my experience as an attorney, teacher, and parent on getting through this chapter of your life: divorce, especially as it impacts upon children. Please be aware that I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or mental health professional and am in no way qualified to give medical or psychological advice. Divorce is a severe trauma; if your children or you are struggling to cope, please reach out to an appropriate medical professional. That said, I hope that you will find helpful guidance, support, and, at times, levity here, and I hope that you will in some small measure be comforted to know that we are all “yours in the struggle.”

The Birthday Party

Thursday February 20, 2014

boy-in-superhero-costume-blue-backgroundI have spent the last three weeks battling a beast known as the New York City Birthday Party for the Preschool Set.  Those of you who have children on our little island know it well.  Step one:  find a venue and save the date!  I booked mine a mere three weeks ago, but then, I like to live on the edge.  If you’re a safe player, you’d have started  at least a month ago.  (I should note that I was elbowed out of my first choice venue, gymnastics, by one of my daughter’s merciless classmates.)  Step two:  Write a gigantic check to said venue.  Resist the temptation to do the math in comparison to your child’s young age and eventual cost of her wedding.  Step three: Invitations.  Time is of the essence!  Another area where I live dangerously–I still mail mine out.  The sensible person will use electronic invites to ensure that she gets first dibs on her child’s weekend time slot.  And finally, there are cupcakes for the class on your child’s special day, party favors for the little guests, pizza, cake, refreshments for the grown-ups, gift-management, thank you notes . . . it’s daunting for the average working person.  And I have an at-times-helpful and at least  not antagonistic spouse.  So how does one manage the birthday beast while in the throes of divorce?  Not easily, to be sure!

One party or two:  First, there are a few decisions to be made.  Will there be one party with both parents and perhaps a few extended relatives (gasp) in attendance or two special celebrations with each parent and his or her side of the family?  A joint party, of course, is  the best possible option for your little one, IF AND ONLY IF, you can be certain that you can share the same space with your former spouse and his mother without becoming ill or beating them both senseless.  Be honest. If you cannot, better to know it and plan around it.  It is far better for your child to have two  separate, peaceful celebrations than one catastrophic one.

Logistics and Expenses:  If you are going the one party route, try agreeing on the date and venue.  Let family members know in advance where the party will be and who will attend.  The  only surprises should be the ones in brightly colored wrapping paper.  Depending on the cast of characters, a gentle reminder to family that this is a divorce-free zone may be appropriate.  Be forthright about the expense and how it will be divided.  Depending on the stage of your divorce, you may already have an agreement as to how expenses are allocated.  In all events, if you haven’t  done so already, now is the time to start a good organizational system to keep track of all your expenses.  Create a  separate file labeled for child-related expenses and save all of your receipts.  (You should have one for your personal expenses, too.)  And don’t forget to record cash!  I recommend keeping notes  of cash expenditures in your smart phone or a small pocket diary that you can carry with you.  Believe me, it adds up!

If you are holding separate parties, don’t feel that you have somehow failed your child!  It is completely normal for your child to cling to the hope that mom and dad are going to get back  together.  And he may plead for a party where you’ll both be together, thus fulfilling his wish that you’ll all be a family again.  These will be difficult conversations and may bring up a great deal of guilt.  Be sure to affirm your child’s feelings.  DO NOT say “that’s silly, of course you don’t want mommy and daddy together . . . it’ll be so much more fun to have TWO parties!“  Remember, feelings are never wrong.  Let your child know that his feelings are valid and that they are very important to you, but be clear about who’s in charge.  Depending on your child’s age, you might say, “It really feels awful that mommy and daddy can’t be together on your special day.  I wish we could, and I know you must be feeling sad and maybe mad, too.  We are going to have a party with your school friends at mommy’s house and you’ll have a party with your cousins and nana at daddy’s house.” Once you have acknowledged your child’s feelings, try to gently redirect him, “Can you help me plan the decorations?  Would you like superheroes or dinosaurs?”  Yes, your child will be disappointed, but ultimately, he will be happiest and most secure in a positive, peaceful environment.

There is no way around it: divorce is, perhaps, the most difficult challenge you will ever face.  But you can enjoy the milestones of life as you navigate this daunting journey.  Remember to step out of your divorce once in a while, be silly, dance with your child, eat cake, play.  Remember that you are the number one role  model for your child: let him see that, yes, tears and mourning are a part of life, but so is getting back up.  Now, grab a superman cape and show him how a real hero gets this done!

Yours in the struggle,

Aimee M. Maddalena