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Ex-etiquette: Son’s behavior inconsistent after separation

Q. My 7-year-old son has always been a handful, but now that his father and I have separated, he’s really acting up. His father says he never acts like that at his house, but I don’t believe it. I’m thinking about sneaking over and observing through the windows. I know you’ll probably tell me that’s not good ex-etiquette, but I don’t know what else to do!

A. Of course it’s not good ex-etiquette, and you might end up in jail! You’re talking stalking or unlawful peeking – both are against the law!

Distrust is a common emotion during a breakup and it sounds like you don’t trust that dad is telling you the truth. Plus, there’s a lot attached to the fact if your son acts “better” at dad’s than he does at your home. Translated into ex-etiquette emotions, that could mean either your son likes it better at Dad’s and/or Dad’s a better parent than you. Fears like that would put most parents on edge. Truth is, those concerns are more about you, so let’s bring it back to your son. (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #1: “Put the children first.”)

How will sneaking around behind your ex’s back help your child? It won’t. It might tell you if he’s acting the same at both houses, but you already know he’s acting up at your house. Rather than look for vindication, figure out how to help him. The most logical place to start when looking for a solution is with Dad.

This is when many say, “Come on. We’re breaking-up. Ask my ex for help?” My answer? “Absolutely,” and the exact reason why “Ask for help if you need it” is Good Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #2. Dad is your ex; he’s not an ex-father. Your child needs help adjusting to your breakup. Who better to “ask for help” than someone who loves your child as much as you do?

Start by being honest with each other (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #8.) Put the egos aside and figure out a schedule that’s as consistent as possible. You want your child to feel comfortable at both homes. Do your best to offer the same punishment/reward system at both homes, and make sure you don’t undermine each other when implementing your disciplinary plan. Stay organized, but relaxed. Children feel most comfortable in “relaxed structure.”

If you can cooperate now, some might ask, why didn’t you cooperate when you were together? Only you two can answer that question, but if you have decided to split, it’s your obligation to support each other in your efforts to co-parent your child. Refer to the 10 Rules of good Ex-etiquette for parents as a guide.

Finally, if a child is telling a parent that he or she prefers it at one parent’s home, that’s a huge red flag and needs to be examined. There’s always the possibility that a child is playing their parents because he or she knows the parents don’t talk so the manipulation will never be discovered – or it could be an indicator that something is truly wrong. Listen to your kids, but check and try to work through negative reports with your ex before accusing him or her of any wrongdoing. That’s good ex-etiquette.

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