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Your pre-teen daughter is having a full-on meltdown, her emotions raging, her screaming and crying theatrics enough to win her an Oscar for best performance.
Your three-year-old son is in the midst of a temper tantrum, screaming and kicking the floor and screaming “No!!” over and over, so loudly that you’d think he was scheduled for a return visit to the torture chamber.
You look at your daughter, or son—hopefully they’re not both falling to pieces at the same time!—and shake your head. This is what happens when children have a divorce thrust on them, you tell yourself, and you resolve to treat them with extra care from now on, to make up for the fact that their father doesn’t live with them anymore. After all, look at the state the kids are in right now…clearly the result of an emotional upheaval.
Uh…wait a second. Not so fast. You might be right…or you might be 180° wrong. The point of this article is embedded in the title: Other kids have problems, too. Your daughter might be reacting to the fact that her father didn’t pick her up as promised last Saturday, even though on the surface she’s wailing about a teacher’s unfairness or a friend’s betrayal…or she might be merely going through a bit of pre-teen angst and typical adolescent emotional upheaval. Your son might be “acting out” because he misses his dad…or he might be simply a stubborn, obstinate, resistant personality by nature, having nothing to do with living in a one-parent family.
What’s more, if you cater to the illusion that all their behavior issues and emotional outbursts result from the divorce, you’ll be teaching them to “play the divorce card” whenever they want to beg you for something or to get away with outrageously bad behavior. They’ll insist that they’re “entitled” to an expensive toy or other purchase, or to a free pass for a total lack of consideration for others, because—poor things—their parents are divorced.
What they’re entitled to is comfort, consideration, and understanding. Not bribery, emotional blackmail, or the freedom to trample on others’ rights or feelings. By all means take into consideration their status as children of divorce when you are deciding how to treat an outburst, a demand, or other inappropriate behavior. Certainly it’s fine to talk to them and tell them that you understand that they’re feeling bad because your ex declined to take your daughter to the father-daughter dance at church and isn’t around to play computer games with your son anymore like your son’s best friend and his dad do. But you still have to lay down the law. You can’t accept their disappointment as validation for bad behavior. You still need to put a stop to it…and mete out consequences if appropriate—grounding, loss of privileges, or whatever “punishment fits the crime,” as Gilbert & Sullivan said in The Mikado.
But you need to bear in mind that not every outburst or bad mood is attributable to the divorce…and you need to remember this for two reasons:
1 – As I said above, you don’t want to let the kids get away with murder or learn to play the divorce card as a “Get out of jail free” escape from the consequences of bad behavior.
2 – You don’t want to be too hard on yourself…or even on your ex.
If you were the one who asked for the divorce, or if he left the marriage but blamed his leaving on something you did (or didn’t do), if you overplay the effects of the divorce on the kids, you’re likely to wind up getting angry with yourself: “If I hadn’t left him/asked him to leave… or If I hadn’t done what I did… we’d still be together and the kids wouldn’t be going through all this crap.” And you heap unneeded blame on yourself.
If he was the one who asked for the divorce, or if you left the marriage but did so because of flaws, faults, or actions of his, it’s all too easy now to get angry at him for the way the kids are acting and for the underlying feelings you assume they’re experiencing. Chances are you’re already angry at him for other reasons; you don’t need to add needless additional reasons to the list. It isn’t fair to him, and it builds up a lot of negative emotions within you as well.
So the next time one of your kids acts up, kicks up a fuss, or otherwise gets out of line, remember, not every problem is attributable to the divorce. Other kids have problems, too!