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Stick to your guns when the ex isn't playing fair

Dear Dr. Wolf,

My ex-husband uses every opportunity available to undermine my authority with our children.

My decisions not to let one of them stay out late at night or to require him to stay in for the weekend because he has school projects to complete in a subject that he's failing are actively circumvented by my ex. He tells our children that my decisions are wrong, that he would have let them stay out with friends, or that, because the kids are very bright, schoolwork isn't as important as an active social life. When one of my sons was angry with me for insisting that he do his household chores, he walked out of the house and went to his father's home.

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I feel that my relationship with my children is at stake in every conflict. My ex cheerfully acknowledges what he's been doing and says he feels there's no reason to change anything at all.

Any advice you might have for divorced parents would be valuable!

Bad Cop

Dear Bad Cop

This is a tough one. Being divorced and having a teenaged child doesn't always work out as you might wish.

It's great when divorced parents work together for what is in their child's best interest.

"Hi Diane, it's me. Did you say that it was okay for James to rent 63 Ways to Die Horribly?"

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"Why that little devil. No, of course not. Thanks for checking with me, Brad."

"No problem, Diane."

Obviously, that's not always the case. What goes on in one home may directly conflict with the rules in the other. The parents may genuinely disagree as to what is best. But also they may disagree purely out of spite. Or they may disagree explicitly to court their child's favour.

The best course is to try to strike a compromise with your ex. But if time has shown that co-operation and negotiation do not work, what you are stuck with is the way it is with most divorced parents: You have a set of rules at your house, and your former spouse has a different set.

True, you could take him to court. But courts - which cost money every time they are involved, for one thing - do not like to make rulings about day-to-day parenting issues. And going back to court may not play so well with your child.

It's extremely frustrating when you genuinely believe that you are right. When you believe that what your ex is doing is definitely not in your child's best interest and sabotages what you are doing - yet because their rules are more attractive, your ex seems to have all the leverage. "Yeah, Dad's way more cool about stuff than Mom."

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The bottom line is that you can only control that part of your child's life when they are with you. So stick with the rules you believe in: "This is the deal when you are here with me. What goes on at your dad's is up to him."

Of course, this can be easier said than done. Sometimes you will be tempted to change your rules to win your kid over.

"Okay, James, I've thought about it and I have decided that you've shown the maturity to be allowed out until 12:30."

"Am I mature enough for 1 a.m.?"

"Yes, I guess so."

"Can I get a new dirt bike too?"

And sometimes this will make sense to do - because he has shown the maturity. (Well, maybe not the dirt bike.) Sometimes it won't. Just remember that much of parenting a teen - divorced or not - is that you do give ground that you would not have thought you ever would.

And what if your kid decides that he much prefers your ex-husband's rules and, as a result, your time and influence with him does significantly diminish?

I would strongly advise saying clearly and often to your child: "I love you. You will always have a home with me where you will always be welcome."

Don't get too much caught up in being hurt. By all means, grieve for the lesser role that you now play in the life of your teen. But move past it. Do not allow your hurt to dictate the future of the relationship.

"He rejected me so why should I reach out to him? I'm not going to." This is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Yes, it is frustrating. Your child's other parent is winning by not playing by the rules and not acting in your child's best interest. But you are still very much your child's parent. You're in it for the long run.

It is just that for this round, your influence may be far less than you would like. But if you hang in there, the next round may be much more to your liking.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.

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