Avoid “Good Cop, Bad Cop” Parenting After Divorce

  • When a disciplinary situation arises after a divorce, parents may fall into different roles of "good cop" and "bad cop".
  • This dynamic leads to a worse relationship with your child.
  • Fostering co-parent communication and being both a kind parent and a disciplinarian can help break the dichotomy.

After a divorce, your children may look at both of their parents through a slightly different lens, depending on your behavior and the behavior of your co-parent. With how often you, as a parent, look to mitigate the emotional impact of the divorce through distractions and tactics designed to promote a more positive atmosphere, it can be challenging to parent bad behavior.

Depending on the child custody situation, you may have a lot of parenting time with your child, where you are able to keep their emotions and behavior in check, or you may have to trust that your co-parent will do that.

These are aspects of the co-parenting relationship that require extending dialogue between the two households. The co-parents need to be able to communicate, in order to forge a consistent standard of behavior that their shared children need to show.

With all of the emotions and history that may exist from the marital discord and the divorce experience, this may be a challenge. However, it is important that both parents attempt to put aside all of the history and animosity, in order to put their children first.

If you do not put aside the animosity and history, then you run the risk of becoming “the bad cop,” when disciplinary situations arise, and during the divorce experience, that can alienate you from your child during an emotionally volatile time in their lives.

What is it

The “good cop/bad cop” parenting model exists outside of divorce and entails one parent being painted as the fun-loving, adventurous and permissive friend and the other parent as the strict, boring disciplinarian, according to Psychology Today.

One parent becomes the child’s best buddy and sympathizer, and the other parent becomes a nag or a rigid guardian of the rules. This formula can make co-parenting incredibly difficult, especially after a divorce.

One parent can go so far as to become a “Disneyland Dad” type of parent. They come home with a new toy that has captured their attention, neglected their standard bedtime, and talk about what an exciting weekend they had. From that high, the child is forced to deal with the reality of a standard set of rules that they were following before going to the other parent’s home.

This paints the parent who sets the rules as the “bad cop,” when the reality is that they are the active parent, in keeping up with what the child needs and maintaining the expectation of how they are to behave.

Communication is key

In order to correct this situation, co-parents need to be able to come together and communicate the rules in both households. While they may not always be the same, they need to be similar enough that the child feels the need to behave the same way in both places.

The emotional volatility of the child at the time makes it necessary to prevent the types of incidents that would pit one household against another. Rather than instilling the mindset that both locations are homes for the child, they divide the child from that sense of belonging, alienating the child from you, as the stricter parent.

Your relaxed co-parent has little to no reason to defend your strict disciplinary parenting to your child without the line of communication being forged, putting your child at risk for parental alienation. This can be difficult to recover from. You cannot allow your feelings about your ex-spouse to get in the way of the well-being of your child.

The study

That also extends to his or her health. A study published in the journal, Social Science and Medicine, suggests that the “good cop, bad cop” dynamic between parents puts the child at risk for poor physical health and obesity.

The study, conducted with the Iowa Youth and Families Project, recorded interactions between 451 12-year-olds and their parents, all the way up until the children hit age 20. Each parent was assigned a harshness rating by the scientists, and the children reported back their physical health.

The results of the study observed that the “good cop” parent acted as a “buffer” of sorts. However, the harsh parenting of the “bad cop” parent led to an increase in adolescent body mass index (BMI). The researchers stated that excessive hormones and inflammation that resulted from constant stress can play a role, and given that some of the households that exhibit “good cop, bad cop” parenting are households of divorce, stress can be part of the package.

Be both

In order to eliminate your stress and nurture a healthier line of communication with your co-parent, you both need to take on the roles of “good cop” and “bad cop,” destroying the dynamic and encouraging a more consistent form of discipline and behavior.

You both have the ability of enjoying time with your child, making memories and having fun, while still being able to discipline them. The two sides of parenting are not mutually exclusive, and dividing those responsibilities is irresponsible and neglects your duty as an active parent in your child’s life.

If you feel as though your time with your child is insufficient and would like to change your child custody circumstances or your parenting schedule, you need to be proactive and contact your family law attorney as soon as you can. They can guide you through the process and advise you on your unique situation.

When you, as a parent, are facing the dynamic of either being the “good cop” or the “bad cop,” you are not engaging in everything that it means to be a parent. You are to guide them and help them understand the standard of behavior they need to maintain and to be there for them, utilizing every precious moment that you can. Both aspects are essential to being the parent that your child needs you to be.

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