How to Deal with Divorce, Shared Custody, and Father’s Behavior

crying-child-parents-photoWhen parents share custody and live in separate homes, things can get ugly. So what do you do if you believe the other parent’s behavior seems inappropriate or borders on abuse? This mom finds out.

Question: I am a single parent who currently shares 50% custody of my 3 daughters ages 3, 5, and 8. (I am also an elementary teacher.) Recent conversations with my daughters have given me information about their “home” life with their father. In anger he lashes out at them, often calling them terrible names. How do I give them strategies to deal with his behavior?

Signed: Concerned about the other 50%

Answer: Dear Concerned About the Other 50%

It is very difficult for me to answer without knowing more about your situation. You mention that you share custody of your children. I do not know for instance, what sort of relationship the two of you have, and can you discuss co parenting issues openly, or not. You also didn’t provide a time frame of how recent the divorce or separation is, and how the children have adjusted to spending half their time with each parent.

If your relationship with the children’s father involves open communication, you can perhaps broach the topic in a non accusatory way, that the kids mentioned that he seems rather stressed. Anything you should know about, and does he need some time for himself?

Your letter does not indicate if he calls all of them names, or is it one or two of the children? Do they all feel this way about their time with him, or are there different shades of hurt or disappointment that they have experienced individually.

You can explain to your kids that although parents love their children, they don’t always express it. On the contrary sometimes even adults can say mean things. If someone calls them names, yells at them, or otherwise hurts their feelings, they need to say something. They don’t have to just accept it, but should tell that person, even if it’s a parent that they hurt their feelings, and that they will not be spoken to that way.

If you are concerned that this behavior is bordering verbal and or emotional abuse, you need to find a qualified child therapist who has experience working with children of divorce. There may be a number of different undercurrents at play here, and it’s important to have someone who can tease out what is actually going on. If he is treating them poorly, then they definitely need professional help to deal with it.

It’s important for you to recognize that whatever you hear from them is tainted by your own experiences with this man. You cannot possibly posses the objectivity necessary here in order to help them effectively.

The one thing you can do is make sure to speak to them with respect, and insist that they treat each other and you the same. Make sure that you let them know how special they are, as individuals, and how special they are to you. Make sure that your home is a warm safe haven where they can feel good about themselves, and feel free to discuss whatever is bothering them.

If they complain about their father, you can listen, be empathic, and then recommend that they discuss it in therapy. You need to be careful not to criticize their father, because he is a part of who they are. If you put him down, inevitably it will be interpreted as an inadequacy in them. Surely you would not want to make them feel badly about themselves.

Dealing with these post divorce issues can be complicated, and I feel for you. It may be helpful to join a support group for other single moms like yourself. It’s not easy advising when there is so much that is unknown. I hope this has been helpful for you.

Odelia Schlisser is a life coach with a Masters Degree in Sociology and a Masters Degree in Education, and is trained in Family Therapy. She currently lectures Psychology and Behavioral Science in Mercy College and has spent the past several years counseling children, teens, parents and teachers.


  1. Danielle Ohliger says:

    To the question #2 – Has anyone considered that her youngest son may be autistic (more specific HFA or Asperger Syndromed)? My 1st pediatrician told me my son was “strong-willed” but when he was 5 years old and having meltdowns and the “strong-willed” behavior became increasingly worse — we found out he was HFA/AS, this could be what she is dealing with also!!!!!!! Couldn’t you just let her know that maybe she should start asking questions about autisim.

    • Lata, below, expressed concern “at how soon we want to medicalise issues.” However, I think that yours is a valid point in this day of increasing autism. I also have a HFA son, and I understand where you’re coming from. After having been dismissed by doctors as “an overly-concerned older Mom” and losing precious time that could have been spent in early intervention for my son, I vowed that I would not let this happen to other mothers. It affects more than one percent of boys in most states in the U.S. I believe that mother’s instinct is a magical thing, and if it’s shouting that there’s a problem, then the situation MUST be looked at!

  2. on the question of a strong willed child and giving choices. my son is 4 going on 5 in 2 months and he exhibits a very strong will. On of our problems is clothing, he loves sweats and pajamas and getting him into shul clothes, wedding bar mitzvah attire is a long battle of crying screaimg and knocking thigs over, fits, rage you name it,

    We do offer the choices of the this outfit or that outfit, but it is not working and he puts on his gym clothes. He does have sensory issues which I am sure magnify everything but I really do want to continue the screaming and hitting to get the end result whic takes an hour of work.


    • DOV,
      Choice is sometimes stressful but necessary for the sense of control or power. It helps if you have a “Social Story” ready for the occassion and read it with your son before the event that seems to bring him the most stress, or you the most battles. A social story is one that explains an event that is upcoming and how the child is expected to handle himself and what he can expect of you if he is successful. Then you have to continue with your current choice plan. Consistancy is the key to success. Preparing your son for the objectional clothing will lesson the battles at changing time; when you may be the most stressed. If he has tactile defensiveness, you may provide him with undergarments that shield his skin form the untolorated sensations of the different material. Under Armour can often help with this.

  3. A follow up to the lying question: I often overhear my 8 year old daughter lying to her friends over unimportant things such as that she has read a book that she hasn’t or seen a movie that she hasn’t. I think she is just trying to fit in. Should I just be letting these “white lies” go or should they be confronted? Similarly she lies to me when she doesn’t want to get in trouble (such as hitting her younger brother, etc.). Shouldn’t she know that we know she is lying or do we let it go?

    • Liz,
      It is essential that your child understands that lies break down trust. You must explain that if she continues to lie to you or others, that people will just stop believing anything she says. Get her a copy of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and explain how it sounds a lot like her ‘story telling’ and when he needed help, he couldn’t get it because after all his ‘jokes’ or lies, no one trusted or believed him.


  4. I’m wondering about something you said above. If you put your husband down, why will the children will make it an inadequacy about them? I grew up with a mother who was always very unhappy with my father and instead of telling him, she told me. Thanks very much.

    • It’s interesting for me to read about that portion as well. I grew up with a father who, after their divorce, would put my mother down to me — and I definitely took it personally . . . I also felt resentment about it towards both my mother and my father.

      I understand that different people are affected differently, and/or in different degrees, to the same or similar situations, but I can understand how the internalization might be a common response to be aware of.

  5. Thank you for this terrific service! I enjoyed reading these questions and responses. I’m going to fill out my main question about my 8-year-old son now. He throws a fit every evening at bedtime, and he is wired like a teenager- he has a ton of energy in the evenings and a hard time waking up in the mornings!!



  6. Fernando(Parent Educator) says:

    First of all, Odelia, you are doing a fantastic job. I’m very proud of you for what you are doing. As for all the parents who have questions or concerns, or who have submitted a comment, education is the answer to all of your questions. As long as we parents refuse to educate ourselves on child development, child behavior and how to be a better parent, raising children will always seem like a loosing battle. The most important thing to know is how a childs mind developes. Once we know this, so many questions that we have will be answered. This does not mean that we have to accept bad behavior, but once we understand it, we will have a much better idea on how to deal with it. If we don’t understand our children, we can not help them. Ellen C. Braun offers so much needed help and the advice that Odelia has given is wonderful. I wish all parents the absolute best with their children.

  7. Lata Shenava says:

    Regarding Danielle’s comment about the second question, I am a little concerned at how soon we want to medicalise issues.

    In India, childrearing (note the conscious use of the term as against ‘parenting’) practices were guided by collectivistic values. With urbanisation and modernisation our lifestyles have become increasingly individualistic. The fantastic system of investing in the family, community (neighbours, teachers, domestic help, etc.) and other significant others has been increasingly replaced by mental health professionals. Consequently, labelling, diagnosis and medication is becoming the first course of action rather than the last. I think mental health professionals are an important part of society and am not talking of doing away with them. Especially in modern urban contexts of reduces social supports, they have a significant role to play. Notwithstanding this, the practice of pushing more individuals into a mental health system that in itself is overburdened, inadequate, harmful and expensive should be a matter of great concern.

    I am working on a project that looks at rediscovering our cultural roots and traditional practices. In my clinical practice I am appalled to find that routine life problems that individuals dealt with some help from a ‘favourite aunt, a friendly neighbour or a caring parent/teacher’ is directed to a mental health professional. A point to note is that the we had a ‘family doctor’ who knew the family intimately, so unlike the ‘specialist’ that so abound the medical profession today.
    To quote Mitch Album from ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’,
    “We have become a bazaar of self-help experts. At Rs. 300 an hour everything is available.

    Lata Shenava
    Mumbai, India

    • My family definitely believes in the idea of “It takes a village to raise a child.” My child is about to turn 4 and is diagnosed autistic. My sister, mother, and two cousins all separately saw the symptoms. He is really a HFA, and the only reason I went through the process was to try to get him into a program to help him socially–with people who know more about how to bring autistics out of their shell. He was tested by the school system and is now in a preschool class that is mixed and has several paras and professionals like an occupational therapist and a speech therapist. There is no medication, no radical changes in diet, just him being put in a social situation that encourages him to grow in the areas where he was deficient, and he has.

      Family is always important, though. When we were first discovering the autistic traits my sister came to live with us while her husband was in Afghanistan. Her daughter is 9 months older than my son, and they spent all day every day together for six months. they even slept in the same bed. It was forced social interaction and he grew so much during that time–4 months before he turned 3, the age they say intervention makes the most difference.

      In the end I’m saying that it is important to have family around. But trust your instincts if you feel something isn’t quite right. I asked our former doctor about Hayden’s small vocabulary and he dismissed my concerns because Hayden technically hit all the milestones in time. Now we have a pediatrician who sees both my children and he remembers them and takes the time to listen to all my concerns and asks about both children no matter which child is going in for a check up.

  8. Regarding the lying issue, in our home we always tell the children we will not get angry at them for telling the truth (and do follow through, even if it’s hard sometimes). Also, I find that if the child is not ready to tell the truth (mommies usually know the real truth!) I bring up the issue later, at a more relaxed moment. This way the child is not so intimated again and I am calm enough to consciously control myself. This emphasizes how important it is to be truthful.

  9. Hi , I have a 6 years old strong willed boy ,too.
    Is the answer to make him feel like he is taking the decision???
    My son has a LOT of energy , and I have to ask him 3 or 5 times to do something , he never listens the first time , so I find myself nagging a lot (he rarely obeys). Should I make it a priority that he listens the first time ??? and how should I do that , or punish him if he doesn’t? Should I always be behind him , say it once, and take him by the hand if he doesn’t???
    He lies sometimes , steal (food , candies…), I tell him how important it is to tell the truth and this works great . Specially the part , ‘if you tell the truth I won’t get mad’ , I heard that once and I think this is a good thing in a family for closeness and trust.
    Anyway , the question again , how to discipline this kind of child without breaking his spirit.
    Is there a magic remedy for not yelling??????????????????????????????????


    • Julie,
      Again, this is a trust issue. I have five of my own children and 9 grandchildren. I can not stress enough that children need to know we expect 100% honesty and we will be brutally honest with them. This is how you build trust and good discipline. If I say something, I will ALWAYS follow through with it. If I have doubts about what I threaten, I do not let it come out of my mouth for risk of destroying my credibility. The same should be demanded of our children.
      The nagging issue is a different one, yet similar. It too, is a trust issue. If a child habitually sees you count or repeat yourself three, four or five times, they know that they do not have to listen until the third time at the earliest. They trust that you will not react until the fifth time. So, should you expect that your son listen the first time? Yes. You might give him one repeat in the event that he honestly did not hear you but after that, you simply follow through on the consequence for not listening. Do NOT get loud or angry. Just as nicely as you requested his cooperation, you dole out the consequence and remind him when he balks, that he chose the consequence by his actions. BE CONSISTANT and you will have a much happier relationship with your son. (Do not expect that great relationship during the transitition period)

  10. this in response to Julie, and others with very strong-willed children: I have a son who is 7 1/2 years old. From the time he could walk, he has been extremely strong-willed, almost limitless energy, had a hard time paying attention, hard time sharing, and gets upset when routines or objects are changed (particularly without prior notice). Some of the plusses are his great joy and exuberance for life, attention to detail, curiousity and willingness to learn, his intelligence, and his kindness.

    When he had great difficulty learning in full-day kindergarten and was disruptive in class (age 6), after his teacher and I had tried everything we could think of, I did further checking through a friend who works in child development and we had him evaluated by a pediatrician and a psychiatrist. He is a delightful, but complex young man. He has ADHD (attention deficit w/hyperactivity), ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), some obsessive/compulsive tendencies, and he is borderline for AS (aspergers syndrome). Let me say that his teacher did not diagnose him, nor did she ask me to have him evaluated. My husband and I decided because things were so out of control. I realize the issue to medicate or not is controversial, and is an individual decision parents must make based on their beliefs and what they think is best for their child.

    I can only tell you that once we found the right meds for him (not fun, takes some trial and error, time, and can affect their appetite so you have to be vigilant and accommodating for proper nutrition) it has made all the difference in the world. One morning we had a change of routine and missed his morning medicine, and his first grade teacher, not knowing this, emailed me and said he was having a very difficult morning–talking out of turn, not listening to directions, couldn’t sit in his seat, etc., and asking if I knew what had happened. Since he has been on a medication that is working, I have come to know that yes, I do have good parenting skills, and now they actually work! Not that life is always perfect, but let me tell you it is greatly improved. I’m sure part of the improvement is also due to age and maturing on his part as he grows. When the medication is in the proper dose, he is himself–he is not drugged out or overmedicated. We would never allow that or do that to our child.

    I don’t believe we are relying on the “mental health system” to take care of our child–rather, we have used it as a tool to understand his behavior, to let other people know why he acts the way he does at times, and give family and friends a better understanding of him. We also have a much better understanding of him which makes it easier to work with him and know how to approach things such as using visual cues and letting him know the schedule for the day. We have worked very hard to build his self-esteem and promote his social skills and involvement with peers, and he has made great progress. Our school and teachers have been great, and speech therapy and Title I reading program have done wonders for him. He is reading and writing, and developing a sense of humor in the classroom. His teachers really enjoy him.

    He still has the ODD tendency and wants to argue, but the pediatrician recommended 1-2-3 Magic (available in book and DVD) and if we are consistent, it works well. I can’t let up for a minute, because if I ever give an inch he takes a mile. Praising the positives and being specific with the praise (e.g.: “you were really a good listener, you got your pajamas on right away when I asked you,” rather than, “good job.”) has been very helpful, as well as suggestions others have made about giving choices. I have found that giving a 1-minute time out is enough to make him stop and think and break the behavior, whereas a 7-minute time out for his age makes him angry and results in worse behavior. Sometimes we will forewarn and take away privileges, such as tv or computer game time.

    Hang in there, all you moms having a tough time–you are not alone. I try to remember others’ comments about my son, like how sweet he is, when I’m ready to tear my hair out, and look for the good. Remember to do the fun things, like movie night or game night, and enjoy your kids!

    • Ann,
      Removing all red 40 food dyes from his diet may also help as well. I did this with my son who exhibited the same symptoms and the difference was amazing! The rough part is that sooooooooooooo many things have that red 40 food dye in it. Any of the coke or pepsi or many of the punch style drinks – even in the lunchables – have this in them. Candy canes, red and white peppermints, hot dogs, gum…the list is endless! Most things which are purple or caramel in color; not just red, have red 40 in it. It involves some homework to pay attention to the red 40, but it can be dramatic. I ended up with such fabulous results that my son did not need prescribed medicine.

  11. This is in response to question #3. Of course, we all respond from our own experiences, including myself. With that said, know this one thing: If your ex-husband is really and truly lashing out at the girls in anger and is calling them names, this is emotional abuse. It is inexcusable and should not be tolerated.

  12. In response to question #2 and the few responses regarding HFA/AS – I recently came across the book ‘The Explosive Child’, on how to deal with children who ‘explode’ often. One such child is one who is ‘chronically infelxible’. The book helps parents deal with such children. You may find that your child is just chronically inflexible, rather than HFA/SA, or better yet, a typical 3 – 4 year old, learning to exert their independence as Odelia suggested (coming from a mother of 5 under the age of 8!)

  13. I have a 12 y/o son. He has had problems from a very early age. He is incredibly intellegent, above his peers in many things, but his interpersonal relationships side of things is sorely lacking. Since I gained custody of him at about age 3, I have worked constantly on trying to correct each deficiency. Lying, being disruptive, keeping ones hands to themselves, peeing himself, you name it. But what I have noticed is he will be fine, and rolling along pefectly, then suddenly relapse, back into these (I thought corrected) issues. His latest and biggest issue, recently has been lying. Trust is a large issue in our home. He seemingly sabotages himself for doing good, and getting rewarded like friends over the night, playing the WII, or computer,… for negative attention. My wife is a home maker, and I work long hours, so I have little time with the family as it is. His bio-mom, constantly makes the children promises, she doesnt keep, constantly doesnt see them on visitations,. I have tried, removing priveledges, groundings, more chores,… you name it nothing works. The games continue, and I and my wife are out of answers. And where we live counseling isnt offered, and is too far away to reasonably drive. I dont belive in ADHD, and the like, I have talked with several professional about it, and they agree that drugging intellegent kids down to the normal school level isnt the answer. Typically ADHD children are very intellegent, and require a mentally challenging school atmosphere, not drugs to make them sit still. Also, Bipolar, manic dpression, alcoholism, and self destructive personality disorder run on the bio-moms side of the genes. Im hoping this isnt more than, my wife and I learning new techniques, or something we can fix ourselves. I really dont want my son weighed down by any of the afore mentioned problems for the rest of his life. He is going to be entering middle school/high school soon. Those kids wont be very nice to him in response to his behavioral problems! I cringe to think of it.

    Any help or suggestions wouldbe great! Thanks

    • I am very much looking forward to the response to this.

      I felt like I was reading about my own son, who is 8, in a reverse. (Bio Father breaks promises, etc.)

      I’ve gone to the extent of removing Red Dye 40 from his diet as he does have a lot of symptoms of “ADHD”.

      How do you maintain consistent progress?

      My son is incredibly intelligent and kind hearted, but often comes off as rude and defiant and at times will absolutely not listen and blatantly be disrespectful.

      I am out of new ideas for managing this behavior.

  14. Why would a 12 yr old, well adjusted, sweet intelligent boy lie about remembering to wear deodorant, clean socks, did he like his lunch, lie about where his straight A report card is (said he didn’t get it), – “stupid” lies – topics he doesn’t have to lie about, continue to do so even after harsh punishments (all privileges removed for a significant time)? This doesn’t seem to fit into any of the typical 5 reasons children of divorce lie. He gets plenty of attention from both households, knows he’s important/heard, receives sympathy & encouragement, emotional support appropriately, is not questioned about what anyone in the other house is doing, both parties are remarried & actively involved in all school/extracurricular activities, is physically well cared for by both households, but continues these ridiculous episodes of lying for no “good reason”, almost as if to try to cause a problem or get in trouble. Please help this totally confused parent!

  15. me again….some have suggested to let these little annoying lies about hygiene, teachers & report cards, etc just go – to ignore them….it’s not like he crashed a car or hurt anyone. This mentality seems completely ridiculous to me. What’s to keep the child from lying when he does find himself in a serious situation? If he’s gotten away with lying all this time for whatever reason, won’t his rationale be, “wtf?! Lie! Been gettin away with it so far….must work. Why not?!”
    Seems to me like the kid will have been “conditioned” to lie. Then it’s the parent’s deliberate fault for not nipping the problem in the bud when it was only the little stuff that he was lying about. Thoughts?