Divorce, Kids & Behaviour Analysis


By Zainab Fazal, M.ADS, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Let’s talk about the D word – divorce! Some statistics show an increase in the number of divorces over the last two decades. In 2002, Kreider & Fields estimated divorce rates in the US at 50%, and that resulted in over 1 million children experiencing their parents’ divorce each year (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999). That’s a whole lot!

Along with an increase in divorce rates, there is also an increase in joint-custody and shared parenting time, which means that both parents are a part of the child’s life, and responsible for parenting, but in two different homes. That also means more children have to learn how to live with mom and dad but now in separate houses. This often creates for much confusion, unrest, anxiety, and new behaviours. And so, parents need to learn new skills and strategies to help their children adjust, and develop post-divorce.

One of the first steps parents need to consider is an appropriate shared time schedule that works for the children. There are a number of schedules that many parents choose for a multitude of reasons, and there is no perfect schedule or right answer for every family. Children’s age, current level of functioning, adaptive skills, school situation, and the parents’ availability are often variables that may be considered when creating a shared parenting schedule. If you are wondering what schedule is best for your situation, I recommend looking at some research that is primarily based on children’s developmental ages, current needs, and consulting with an expert in the field. The schedule is important, and should be considered when creating effective behaviour management strategies.

Second, parents need to learn how to discuss their children’s behaviours, because the kiddos will certainly engage in novel ones post-divorce. In this regard, I recommend consulting with an expert who has extensive experience working with divorced families. Having a professional help mediate your discussions will help you and your ex-spouse create an effective parenting plan, which if followed, will have a positive impact on your children – and that is what is most important!

Regardless if your divorce is what you consider amicable or not, the kiddos are under very new contingencies. And likely two new sets of contingencies, one set at mom’s house and another set at dad’s house. Co-parenting with your ex can be fraught with stress, so it is no easy undertaking to learn how to effectively do it. Here are some strategies based on the science of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) that can help you co-parent more efficaciously:

  1. Create a list of “house rules” that are general enough for both homes (okay parents, this is going to require you to put your differences aside and talk like grown ups!). If your children know the expectations, and what happens when they follow or break the rules, things will be a lot smoother at home. Having similar sets of contingencies in both homes will provide your children with more opportunities to learn appropriate behaviours, and come into contact with reinforcement more often, which in turn, will increase all those good behaviours! Consider the big stuff – for example, bed times, homework routines, manners, verbal behaviours (e.g., swearing), use of technology on school days. Don’t fret the small stuff like which chores each child does, and when they have to do them. Remember consistency with the rules is key, and amend the rules as your children’s needs change.
  2. If your children are old enough, consider writing a behavioural contract with your child, your ex-spouse, and yourself. A behavioural contract is a written document between the parent(s) and child that specifies the relationship between following rules and completing tasks, and the contingent access to reinforcers.
  3. Kids say a lot. They also say a lot of things that they may not mean, but instead say it to perhaps get your attention, or maybe get out of doing something. Kids are brilliant, and they learn very quickly what works with mom and dad. If someone tells you that your child is doing that to get your attention so you should just ignore the behaviour, remember in a co-parenting situation, it really is not that simple. There are both antecedent and consequence-based strategies that will dramatically change your relationship with your children. Here are few changes you can make when trying to modify behaviours:
    • Talk to your child outside of high conflict or behavioural situations.  Your reaction (i.e., consequence) when your child throws a “tantrum” is what is maintaining the behaviour. So providing your child with attention not as a response to their inappropriate behaviour, but instead when you’re just hanging out will do far more good!
    • Follow through with the house rules. Both mom and dad have to stick to the rules, or you can’t expect the kids to.
    • Watch your responses to all the “bad” behaviours; making changes in this area will quickly change the contingencies that are not currently working.
    • Watch your responses to all the “good” behaviours; are you providing your child with enough praise and reinforcement for them to be motivated to do more of the “good” stuff?
    • Teach your kids appropriate behaviours – do not expect them to just figure it out; remember, they are in a novel situation and learning the skills will not just naturally occur. Take the time (outside of conflict situations) to model appropriate behaviours.
  4. If your children are engaging in high rates or intense challenging behaviours, consider working with a behaviour analyst who can help you learn why your child might be doing what he/she is doing (i.e., the function of behaviour). As a first step, record data on challenging behaviours. If your ex-spouse can do the same objectively, it will help in creating individualized strategies for each home. Your behaviour consultant will help you analyze the contingencies that are in place in each home that might be the reason why challenging behaviours are increasing. Some basic data you should record includes answering the following questions (known as antecedent-behaviour-consequence data recording):
    • What happened just before the behaviour?
    • What behaviour(s) did your child do? What did it look like?
    • What did you do in response to the behaviour?
  5. Build rapport with your child, every time they come back to your house.  On transfer days, create a special routine or activity to help your child transition. Or recognize that they may need some space and time when they arrive, so allow them that before your special activity. Remember, it is likely not easy for your child to switch to the other parent’s house and rules as quickly as you may like. Do not expect them to, instead allow them time to adjust and do that special activity every time.

If you get divorced, and have kids, remember your most important job is to help your child adjust and develop in positive ways. Using behaviour analytic strategies can help your children do that when they live in two separate homes.


Kreider R.M., & Fields J.M. (2002). Number, timing, and duration of marriages and divorces. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Reports.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. Statistical abstract of the United States 1999. 119th. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office; 1999.

Zainab Fazal, M.ADS, BCBA zainab@pbxs.ca Zainab Fazal, M.ADS, BCBA, began her career in the developmental disabilities field in 2002, and has dedicated her clinical work and research in the area of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). She has worked for many years in assessing and developing comprehensive programs plans for children, youth, and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), learning disabilities, other developmental disabilities, behavioural challenges and mental health issues. Her recent work includes training front-line staff and teachers to use ABA in therapeutic and school settings, and has successfully trained individuals for the Registered Behaviour Technician credential with the Behaviour Analyst Certification Board. She is also an adjunct professor at Seneca College teaching ABA courses in the Behavioural Sciences program. Zainab is the founder and director of Phoenix Behaviour Services, a private practice in Toronto, Canada. You can follow her on twitter @Phoenix_ABA and reach her at [email protected].

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