When parents do not agree – how to help our addicted/depressed/ overly anxious son or daughter?
I have been working for over twenty years with families who struggle with adolescent children or emerging young adults who have mental health and/or substance abuse problems. One of the most common issues that brings parents to my office is their disagreement on how to set unified limits and boundaries when it comes to their child. What we typically see when parents cannot agree on a plan is that the adolescent or young adult will use this to their advantage to sow further discord and conflict. Time and time again, I have talked to young people who were very proud of their ability to split their parents, manipulate the situation, and get away with ”murder”, so to speak. Teens often tell me that they have great insight into their parents’ strengths and weaknesses. The teens levy this knowledge to manipulate their parents into allowing them to do what they want.
In most families, parents are typically divided when it comes to discipline. This is actually not a bad thing so long as the parents are able to process the differences in their positions and create unified rules and expectations. This doesn’t necessarily entail that parents always need clear-cut expectations and guidelines though. It’s also important to remember that allowing for flexibility and understanding is a part of good parenting. Therefore, parents need to talk this out amongst themselves, away from the prying ears of their observant adolescent, and figure out what approach is needed for the given situation. In my own experience, parents really struggle to do this effectively. Parents can often start to become ‘reactive’ rather than responsive which will only escalate the situation. One of my mottos is to “get curious, not furious”. This should drive parental decisions regarding rules, expectations, and discipline.
We often come with a lot of baggage when parenting. We’ve all experienced a lot of hurt, had quite a few dreams, and experienced a variety of things that will change our perspectives. Problems emerge when this baggage gets in the way of two spouses and prevents them from co-parenting effectively.
Recently, I met with a father, John (name changed for confidentiality), who was very upset with his wife Jane (name changed for confidentiality) because she did not seem to want challenge their seventeen years old daughter by “giving her rules” and expectations such as getting up in the morning, getting on her e-learning in a timely fashion, taking daily shower, cleaning her room, and spending time with family. John was a strong believer in rules and expectations as well as consequences. That position often manifested itself in hurtful language, intense tone, or days of silence. Jane, on the other hand, wanted to be a friend with her daughter since she herself had parents who were overly strict and demanding. She hated conflict and wanted to create a stress free and peaceful home. Their daughter was a bright young lady and a very good student in the middle school but by the time high school rolled around, things had begun to change. The parents noticed their daughter having anger outbursts, poor hygiene, a drop in grades and desire to stay in her room endlessly on her electronic devices. John would attempt to yell at their daughter which would cause Jane to step in and negotiate. Their daughter would then complain to Jane about how spiteful and unfair John was which would put pressure on Jane to side with her. John would then feel hurt and upset that Jane was defending their daughter instead of siding with him. Their daughter would then be able to extract herself from the situation and leave the parents to fight amongst themselves. As a result, the marriage started to suffer and it caused both parents to grow in their anger and resentment towards each other. They weren’t able to come together as a unified front and it really impacted the way they were raising their daughter.
I see this case often enough to tell you that this is a very common dynamic. If this sounds familiar, remember that you can’t sacrifice your partner in an attempt to save your child.
Parenting from fear, hope, guilt or sympathy will not be effective and may result in the opposite result from what one intended. In this case, Jane was fearful that her daughter would not like her. She was hoping that one day her daughter will outgrow this ‘phase’, and was overly sympathetic to her child, remembering her own experiences. John has good ideas in terms of rules but, because of his reactivity, he felt guilty most of the time and was not able to be consistent in his expectations and rules. While they were trying to do their best, their daughter was falling deeper into her depression and loneliness. What got them to my office was a call from the school counselor who was concerned about their child engaging in self-harm behavior.
It takes a while to develop new patterns of interacting with each other and new ways to parent effectively. Many parents are looking for a quick fix that just does not exist. Instead, I want to provide a few starting points that you can expand upon in your own parenting journey.
- Examine how you were parented and how you parent. What is the main goal of your parenting? Is it to be liked at all cost or to raise an independent, authentic and responsible human? When John and Jane examined their upbringing, we were able to talk about the positives as well as the shortcomings of how they were raised. They talked about what they wanted to do differently and how they could bring about new outcomes for their own children.
- Have conversations with your spouse and make an effort to understand their position on the situation as well as feelings. Make sure that your kids are not privy to this discussion. John and Jane needed to learn to truly listen to each other. They also needed to learn how to identify, express and validate each other’s
- Remember your spouse loves your child as much as you and wants the best for your family as much as you do. You both can love your teen even when their behavior is unlovable. John was angry with their daughter’s behaviors but his reactions confused his wife and daughter. It causes everyone to think that he does not love his child or his spouse.
- Your spouse is your teammate not your child’s – act like it. Jane realized that she was on a team with her daughter which made John even more upset. John felt lonely and misunderstood.
- You need your partner to help you when you struggle – parenting is hard and we all need help and support. John and Jane needed to develop empathy for each other. They also worked on strengthening their relationship.
- Work with your spouse to learn effective parenting skills. Kids do not come with manuals so you and your spouse have to create
To be continued. The second part will explain different parenting styles.
Marta McGuinness is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who works as a Clinical Director at Families and Adolescents in Recovery, Inc. in Schaumburg IL. She provides educational lectures to her community, often presenting in local high schools and churches. Marta is also Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor. She has a passion for helping parents strengthen their relationships and their families.
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