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Divorced Parents: Parenting Action Plan

Richard’s out today, C.R. writes: In a loving, functional family, a child is treasured. In truth, parents love and are proud of their child not only for the unique person he is, but also the unique person his parents help him become.

Functional families all have remarkably similar core philosophies—the parents are fully committed to lovingly invest themselves in the child. This investment requires love (it’s essential), but it also requires time and a variety of resources.

There are four main needs children have (of course, there may be others), a kind of parental investment portfolio where the parent gives his non-material and material resources:

Spiritual (including religion, morals, and values)

Emotional (including stable, loving and respectful behavior, affection, appropriate discipline)

Intellectual (including age/personality/culturally appropriate intellectual stimulation and education)

Physical (including health and medical care, exercise, proper nutrition, clothing, shelter and other bodily and material needs)

As a parent, by seeking to impart your most valuable resources in these areas while also recognizing and respecting your child’s own personal strengths and limitations, you make a contribution to the “building” of a healthy child. Sure, there are other factors, but attention to these areas during formative years contribute to the development of a healthy child and eventual adult, one who can function pretty well on the personal, interpersonal, and communal levels.

In some instances, especially in traditional or even primitive societies, these four needs seem to blend into one, fluid approach—parents (and kids), know what’s expected of them in the family relationship.  In modern cultures which sometimes seem to be shifting and developing daily, families might seek to blend core values with the demands of the prevailing society. Where to give and where to hold back requires thoughtfulness on the part of parents.

The thoughtfulness, the willingness, and the ability of parents to act on what they believe is important to the well-being and development of their child. When parents identify, think about and act on these deep requirements (spiritual, emotional, intellectual and material), it distinguishes functional families from dysfunctional ones.* I’d argue that intellectual honesty, knowing who you are deep down, and what you really believe, is necessary in order to be able to give of yourself.

Dysfunctional families tend to differ in their dysfunctions. The family roles may morph, twist or turn. Parents might be traumatized, angry, hurting and impart these feelings to their children. In some areas, parents needs must come first. But in these four areas, parents have to be prepared to give. And give some more.

In some cases, for example in the case of children born to an addicted  parent, the child’s material/physical needs take second place to the parent’s. In cases of parental alienation, where one parent essentially brainwashes a child to hate the other parent (usually in cases of divorce), a child’s spiritual/values and mental/emotional  needs take second-place to the needs of the alienating parent. There are all kinds of unhealthy ways parents’ needs can trump their children’s.

Although today divorce is so common that to call it dysfunctional sounds unrealistic, still, most divorced parents relate that they face parenting challenges they never previously envisioned.

Kids of divorce generally don’t get the chance to see parents work on blending their viewpoints and reaching compromises—in fact, prior to divorce, they often witness the opposite. Their main model for adult relationships is fractured and sometimes even vicious. They see adult single-hood as the normative state, and relationships as unusual, so when they mature, they might subconsciously or consciously choose single-hood over relationship.

Children naturally believe their parents are pretty much  infallible. It is astonishing to see how children sponge up their parent’s energy (which is why books on recovering from toxic parents and how to develop positive parenting skills are always in demand). So many kids tend to mirror, inherit, react and respond to their parents’ subconscious selves as much or even more than their conscious selves.

In situations where divorce is the only option, parents sometimes have a hard time finding the balance between building a child up and parenting with appropriate boundaries and discipline. I’ve been talking with divorced parents who view themselves as successful parents and their children as doing well overall.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, these parents say they spend time mapping out ways in which they can maximize success in the above four areas (whether they identify them exactly in the same terms or not). They do this by creating mental, verbal or written action-plans.

Their action-plans include reminders about and scheduling for:

Discussions about their children’s well-being with the other parent (when possible), and/or with their own parents and/or siblings or close mentors/friends

Reading parenting books and/or attending parenting programs (some programs for single parents, some not)

Consulting religious/spiritual clergy or mentors

Using calendars/diaries as a tool to schedule essentials (medical check-ups, school conferences, and so on)

Getting help whenever needed (monetary help/social services/loans, tutoring, after-school programs, therapy, art/music/sports activities for children, household help in order to make more time to spend with children, and so on)

Encouraging their children to spend time with and have loving relationships with their other parent and the other parent’s extended family (whenever possible)

Encouraging children to have age-appropriate friendships and activities with friends

Discussing the divorce in age-appropriate terms, sharing information as necessary to the well-being of the child

Maintaining their own personal lives, away from their children, even if it’s as little as a couple hours a week.

(I made one or two suggestions which were immediately dismissed as impractical! Just goes to show that theories aren’t worth much without real-life experience.)

The sample of people I spoke with is rather small, so I’m sure you can think of other points that belong on a parenting action plan. Except for one mom who told me that she does best without lists, everyone I spoke with kept their plan, whatever it was called, in some kind of written format.


*Not all functional, even wonderful, parents are able to articulate how they instill healthy values in their children, but they’re actions show they do think/feel that these four areas are important. For many people thinking, feeling, and discussing these values with the partner parent or another close advisor before acting on them is essential.

Divorced Parents: Parenting Action Plan

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2011). Divorced Parents: Parenting Action Plan. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 Nov 2011
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