Coping After a Divorce

Q: I am a middle-aged divorced man with joint custody of four boys, aged six to 15. My sons have continual fights about the same issues and I need some advice on how to deal with them.

My ex-wife and I had a messy divorce. We strongly avoid having contact with each other, so the possibility of working together on any parenting issue is basically impossible. In any case, her parenting style is totally different from mine.

I’m in this alone: In other words, whatever improvement I try to create with my kids doesn’t get carried over once they’re with their mother. It’s gotten so bad that I’m starting to feel pity for myself and my situation.

Issues like “who’s going to get to sit on the couch first” on Shabbos turns into World War III. A request by one of my sons to his brother to stop shaking his legs while sitting at the table is taken as a personal affront.

My youngest son has a habit of telling my oldest son how much he hates him. When the boys are at their mother’s house, this oldest son is forced into the role of “second Mommy,” as my ex-wife is constantly on the phone with work-related matters — and I think my youngest son greatly resents it. Worst of all, when I try to discuss these things with them, they just begin to cry quietly.

Any ideas of where to go with these issues?

A: You are not mentioning your children’s over-all functioning — in school, with peers — so it’s hard to gauge how much your problematic divorce is affecting their behavior, their ability to learn productive coping mechanisms, etc. Instead of feeling self-pity, perhaps you ought to modify your expectations.

The examples you give reflect typical sibling conflicts. One major concern, however, is that both of your sons’ reactions to emotional pain is to cry quietly. Somehow they seem to be reflecting your maladaptive coping mechanism of self-pity.

I would guess that the feelings behind the tears could be: “Why are they picking on me again? It was really …. who started it — not me.”

Or, “It’s not fair that I have this hard-to-control behavior of leg-shaking.”

Your children would greatly benefit from individual and family therapy to better work through the many emotions that they have experienced, and continue to experience.

You yourself would most definitely benefit.

In general, when your sons cry easily over common occurrences, a consistent, appropriate response needs to be given, rather than just ignoring it, being annoyed by it or being overly empathetic. The suitable response will be dependent on their specific needs, as worked on in therapy.

In reality, even in homes where both parents are present, divergent opinions are often expressed and this, too, causes stress. One example is a mother who doesn’t allow food outside the kitchen and dining room. Her husband might come home later and then want to eat popcorn in his bed with his children, which is accordance with his vision of quality, fun time with them.

There are plenty of grey areas in parenting — not right or wrong — that are encountered on a daily basis. There is a reason why Chazal state that no two faces are the same — intimating that no two people think exactly alike.

If one’s expectation is that his partner in parenting must be a clone of himself, then he will continually be severely disappointed!

I realize that you have little expectation of your ex-wife working with you. I am just pointing out that the need for parents to compromise on parenting “techniques” is a continual challenge, whether the parents are married or not.

With regard to the actual examples that you mention, ways to decrease sibling conflict vary. If the children are younger, charts to specify whose turn it is are a time-honored method to restore sibling peace.

For older children, times of day, or days of the week, can be ear-marked for usage of desired items or privileges.

Ways for your oldest son to better communicate with his younger brother need to be discussed and explored before there are altercations between them. If your oldest son finds himself having to play a parental role, he might try rewarding his youngest brother for helping him (perhaps saying that the reward is from his father). Animosity tends to dissipate when someone is part of a team.