When Your Children Misbehave, Who Gets to Decide on Discipline? You or Your Ex? Here’s How to Avoid Feeling Undermined As a Parent

Do you and your ex often disagree on how to discipline your kids?

Does your ex expect you to enforce consequences with your kids that you think are over the top or inappropriate?

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Are you resentful of having to “punish” your kids for something they did at the other household, when all you want is to have quality time with them at your house?

If you and your ex don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to enforcing rules and discipline with your kids, you’re not alone. A LOT of parents have challenges in this area.

And for good reason…

When you and your ex were together and living in the same house, it may have been easier to maintain a united front when it came to disciplining your children. Maybe one of you made decisions about consequences and the other person went along with whatever was decided. Or you both agreed on a strategy together.

You were in love, you were a family, and things were probably a lot simpler.

Now that you and your ex are split up, things are more complicated (on all fronts!)

You don’t see what your kids are doing when they’re at your Ex’s, so sometimes you’re not sure if the punishment your Ex is handing out is fair, or not. Your kids have their opinion, too.

Or, you don’t want to be the “bad guy” when it’s your time with the kids. You want it to be pleasant, not spoiled by having to enforce some arbitrary punishment your Ex decided on.

So, when it comes to discipline after a separation or divorce, who gets to call the shots, and why?

In this article, I’m going to offer you 5 powerful guidelines on discipline that can make it much less stressful and contentious for you and your Ex-—and better for your kids, too.

You Know You Need to Be On the Same Page, But It’s Not That Easy

Kids act up. Testing limits is just part of the package. Deciding what to do about your child’s momentary lapses in judgement is one of the challenges of being a parent.

It gets even harder when you’ve laid down the law, grounded your kids, only to realize it’s Friday afternoon and it’s Dad’s weekend.

Your kid gets that look on his face that tells you that he isn’t worried about the punishment, he’s going over to Dad’s and he’s not going to have to do anything YOU say.

While it would be great if Dad would uphold the grounding you just handed down, it’s not always that simple. He’s already made plans and doesn’t feel his time needs to be spent carrying out your punishment.

dad son minnow fishing

Before you know it, Junior is off the hook and the effectiveness of your consequence just took a serious nose dive.

While it’s easy to target Dad as the bad guy, there are two sides to this dilemma, as one Dad from our parenting community pointed out.

He writes:

Recently my Ex had a discipline issue come up with our son and decided to punish him by not letting him go to football practice. That would have been fine if it had been her night and she was the one taking him. I don’t have my kids very often and when I do, I look forward to spending time with them and enjoying it.

His Mom expected me to back her up and told me (yes, told me) I couldn’t take him to practice. I know as co-parents we need to be on the same page but this just doesn’t feel right. What am I missing?

Sincerely, Shot down Dad


Dear Shot Down Dad,

Big props to you for keeping your cool and thinking things through before getting into a throw down with Mom. Deciding who calls the shots when your kids aren’t behaving is a HUGE issue that lots of parents lock horns over. (BTW – parents who stay together struggle with discipline hand-offs too.)

While you have a right to be bent about how Mom handed things off, she did have one thing right.

Parents should show a united front on discipline issues.

It’s not okay, however, for either one of you to put your foot down and expect the other parent to enforce it without having any input.

Sounds like what happened was Mom lost her cool and wanted to dish out a consequence that showed your son who’s boss. Easy to do in the heat of the moment, we’ve all been there.

Before another incident crops up, I’d suggest setting aside some time to revisit the situation with Mom.

To set the stage for success, let Mom know that you want to be supportive and in theory, you agree that the two of you need to back each other up. To avoid creating a rift between the two of you, work together to set up some ground rules for moving forward.

The key here is being able to have a cooperative relationship with your Ex, so you can get on the same page regarding discipline before you make any decisions about punishments and consequences with your children.

Here’s how to do it…

5 Guidelines for Discipline Every Co-Parent Should Consider

Let’s say that you either have a good relationship with your ex, or you’ve watched my program and have figured out how to work together for the benefit of your kids without getting into a spitting contest. Great!

Assuming you’re able to have a productive discussion with the other parent, here are some guidelines that can help you show a united front without stepping on each other’s toes when it comes to disciplining your children:

1. Talk it over before you hand it over.

If a discipline issue comes up on a transition day or needs to be carried out during the other parent’s time, you both agree to talk with each other before the consequence is given. At that time you can make a joint decision together about how to best handle the issue.

Each of you may also want to brainstorm a list of appropriate consequences for minor behavior issues that don’t involve the other household. This way, when an issue crops up, you’re not stuck coming up with something on the fly.

If talking to each other beforehand isn’t an option, make an agreement not to give a consequence that impacts the other parent’s time.

2. Let them wait.

You can also agree NOT to give immediate consequences. Let’s say your son is mouthing off. Instead of telling him he can’t go with you to football practice, you could say, “How you’re behaving is a problem. Since you’re going to be with Mom/Dad tonight, I’m going to call Mom/Dad and talk about how we should handle this.”

For most kids, not knowing what Mom and Dad are going to do is more nerve-racking than the actual punishment.

3. Put yourself out there as a united front.

It might also be wise to let the kids know that from this point forward you and the other parent will be talking about discipline issues. You may find it will minimize their ability to play one against the other (which any self-respecting kid is going to do from time to time).

4. Keep time with a parent sacred.

Limiting or taking away quality time with a parent is rarely a good discipline option.

I’d also add threatening to send a child to the other parent’s home when they don’t behave is also a big “no-no.” (i.e. “If you don’t like my rules then you can just go live with your Dad” or “You’ll either do what I say or you can just stay at your Mom’s house.”) Time with a parent should never be used as leverage or punishment.

5. Get ‘em where it hurts.

So what are good consequences? Focus on limiting activities that don’t make a positive contribution to the quality of your children’s lives.

For example, instead of saying “No” to football (which is actually a great thing for your son to be involved in) consider putting the TV on house arrest, not letting him hang out with friends on the weekend, putting the cell phone in time out or packing up the playstation in his room. While your son may say you’re killing him, missing out on those activities won’t have a long-term negative impact.

Creating a united front based on these guidelines can save you a lot of frustration and go a long way towards providing your kids the structure and stability they’ll need over the next several years. Not to mention all of the potential co-parenting stress you’ll bypass.

The key to discipline and co-parenting is looking at the bigger picture: Your child’s relationship with the other parent and consistency has much more value than dishing out specific punishments in response to misbehavior.

Presenting a united front while respecting the other parent’s relationship with your child is what’s best. It’s best for you, it’s best for your Ex and most of all it’s what’s best for your child.

Practical, Simple Tips on How to Solve Common Co-Parenting Quandaries

What once worked when you were parenting out of one home definitely becomes much more complicated or simply stops working when parents are no longer living together.

Discipline is one example of something that can become a lot more complicated or cause further rifts between parents after a separation.

mom daughter gardening

Other examples of how parenting can be more complicated or challenging after a split are:

  • When your child has emotional problems because of the changes that have taken place
  • When your child balks at having to transition to the other household
  • When your child is angry with you or doesn’t want a relationship with you because of what the other parent is telling them
  • When you can’t agree with or even talk to the other parent in a civil way
  • When you feel as if you have no influence over your child’s life because you hardly ever see them

These are challenges which my video program, Co-Parenting With Purpose: How to Raise Happy, Secure and Resilient Kids After You’ve Split Up, addresses.

In Co-Parenting With Purpose, you’ll learn the best ways to support your child’s relationship with the other parent that don’t leave you feeling out of the loop. You’ll discover how you can ALWAYS be a positive, supportive influence in your child’s life, even if you only spend a fraction of time with them compared to their other parent, and even if there are discipline issues that need to be addressed.

You’ll get real-world advice on how to forge a civil relationship with your ex (no matter how much they drive you crazy), which includes what to say and what not to say in order to have productive, calm discussions for the benefit of your children.

My program will also help you get to the bottom of what your children are feeling, so they feel heard and understood, which can help resolve misbehavior and defiance problems at the source.

How to Make Co-Parenting Easier

Co-parenting doesn’t need to be fraught with challenges. There are things you can do to make you and your kids’ lives simpler and smoother, even if you and your ex can’t seem to see eye-to-eye right now.

There is hope and it can get better, with the right tools.

Wishing you and your children the very best,

Christina McGhee

P.S. What if your kids aren’t handling the split at all, and are depressed, angry and defiant most of the time?

In Co-Parenting With Purpose, I’ll explain the different ways kids internalize a separation or divorce and the simple, practical things you can do every day that lets them feel heard, understood and loved, no matter how many changes they’ve had to go through. This is an eye-opening program that will change everything you thought you knew about how your kids are “handling” your separation.

Read More

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  • Co-parenting secrets to help your kids thrive
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