When Parents Disagree: How to get on the same page without anyone “winning” or “losing”

Claire Lerner, LCSW
Marriage is hard enough. Adding kids to the mix brings a lot of joy but also more complexity, as parenting requires making countless decisions each day about what kids eat, how to get them to sleep, how much screen time to allow, etc., and the biggie—what the rules, limits and consequences will be for inappropriate behavior (of which there is a lot in the early years).  Some couples are fortunate to share similar approaches about most childrearing issues. But many parents experience conflict rooted in the fact that they have different perspectives about how to raise kids based on their own upbringings, beliefs and values, and expectations for their children. This kind of tension between parents can have negative effects on children, including:

  • Children sense and often witness tension unfolding in front of them, which translates in their minds to “I’m a problem”. This can negatively affect their growing sense of self.
  • Visible discord between parents is uncomfortable and scary for young children who rely on them to be their trusted leaders—which includes being calm and in control.
  •  When parents disagree about an approach, they often undermine each other. For example, one parent announces: “It’s time to put toys away and wash hands for dinner.” Their child protests: “Five more minutes…I need just 5 more minutes!” Enter the other parent who chimes in: “Ok bud, 5 more minutes and that’s it—I mean it.” Everyone is well intentioned, that’s not the issue.  But undermining your partner can build anger and resentment, making co-parenting even more stressful. For children, It can cause anxiety and more acting-out behavior; from their perspective, it is confusing to get mixed messages about expectations for acceptable behavior. (It can also lead to kids using the rift between their parents to their short-term advantage, but everyone’s long-term disadvantage). It is no surprise that most children tend to behave so much better at school: the rules, limits and consequences are crystal clear and implemented matter-of-factly so children know exactly what to expect and are better-equipped to make good choices.

Fortunately, there is a lot you can do:

  • Accept that as convinced as you are that your position is best, your partner is equally as vehement about the “rightness” of his or her approach. When parents insist that their way is the “right” way, and put all their energy into convincing their partner of this notion, they tend to get increasingly polarized. Each partner may feel the need to compensate for what they perceive as the other’s inappropriate actions. The stricter parent may get more rigid and harsh to counter what is perceived to be the other partner’s leniency. The more lenient parent may become even more permissive to counter the other partner’s perceived severity. Instead of finding yourself in this unhelpful dynamic, make a commitment to sharing each of your points of view about the behaviors and situations that arise with your children on which you tend to disagree. Listen openly to your partner. You don’t have to agree, but it is very important that you understand where the other is coming from and acknowledge the validity of their perspective. This makes for a much stronger, harmonious parenting partnership and provides your child a powerful model for mutual respect and effective problem-solving in relationships. One family I recently worked with was at loggerheads about how to get their 15-month-old-Lily—to sleep through the night. Mom was at her wit’s end with sleep-deprivation and wanted to go cold turkey—after lights-out, no responding to Lily. Dad wanted to go in and rock her back to sleep. When I asked each parent to share their thinking behind their different approaches, Mom said she felt any intervention or efforts to soothe Lily in the middle of the night would keep reinforcing the night-awakenings. Dad, who got very choked up at this point, explained that, because his own father had left the family when he was 2 years old, he swore that his kids would never feel abandoned by him.  Letting Lily cry, even a little, felt like abandonment by Dad. Once they stopped trying to convince the other of the “rightness” of their position, and truly listened to where their partner was coming from, these parents were able to come up with a plan that took into consideration both of their perspectives: they would peek in when Lily awakened at night to assure her they were still there and that all was well, but they wouldn’t hold or rock her back to sleep. This felt comfortable to Mom because she felt it would still give Lily the chance to learn to soothe herself. Dad could also live with this plan because Lily would get the assurance that Mom and Dad were still there and when he took his emotions out of it, he was able to see that giving Lily a chance to learn to soothe herself was being a loving parent, not a neglectful one.
  • Make the focus what your child needs, not which one of you has the better approach and “wins out”. Agree to think together about what your child’s behavior is telling you and what will help him cope. This should be the goal you both share and to which you are ultimately committed.
  • When your child engages in behavior that calls for a response from you, and it’s a not life or death matter such as running into the street or climbing on the counter, take a mommy/daddy time out. This helps you avoid being reactive and working at cross-purposes. It looks and sounds something like this: In a very upbeat and wondering tone, without anger, one parent turns to the other and says: “Hmm, this is a problem. We’ve explained to Henry that grabbing toys is not okay, but he is not cooperating with this rule. So, Henry, Daddy and I are going to take a minute to put our heads together to figure out how we can help you follow this rule.” This strategy is often enough to motivate a child to correct his behavior and make a better choice, so shocked that you are not being reactive and, instead, are working as a team. You can put a timer on for one or two minutes to come up with a plan you both feel comfortable implementing. This gives you and your partner a chance to collaborate on a united response.
  • Identify what each of your strengths or comfort-levels are for different parenting challenges and use this knowledge as a positive, parenting tool. The parent who is less anxious about their child’s daredevil nature would take the lead when they go to the playground in order to allow the child to take risks while keeping him safe. The parent who has more patience would deal with the temper tantrums. The frame is not that one parent is “better” than the other.  Each parent has different trigger points and you are using this awareness to support each other and be effective co-parents. It’s a strength, not a weakness, and it benefits you and your child.

What about if you don’t live with your co-parent?

Children are very adaptable. They quickly learn what the expectations are in different settings and with different people, and act accordingly.  (It never ceased to amaze me that my children did for themselves in daycare that I was still doing all the time for them at home!) Begging to stay up late works with my grandma but not auntie. Mom will feed me but my teachers expect me to use utensils and feed myself.  The same goes for living in two separate homes and by different sets of rules: children will adapt to the expectations in each setting.

It is indeed ideal for separated parents to try to agree on an approach to childrearing, as children tend to adapt more easily when there is consistency in rules from one setting to another. But when there are disagreements, many of the same rules apply as those for parents sharing a home:

  • Accept that you cannot control the other parent. The only person you have control over is yourself. Focus on what you can do to tune in to and nurture your child’s unique needs. Trying to make your co-parent do it your way is rarely an effective strategy.
  •  Agree that nurturing your child’s healthiest development is a shared goal. Your focus should be about what your child needs and how to best meet those needs. Avoid using the conflicts around childrearing as opportunities to get back at or punish the other parent. If possible, plan regular times to communicate about what each of you are seeing, experiencing and learning about your child and what this is telling you about what he or she needs to thrive. For example, many years ago when my ex-husband and I separated, we noticed that our son, who was 6 at the time, had a much harder time when his Dad did school drop-off. He would get very upset and have a hard time coping and making the transition to school. When we talked about it with him, he was actually able to articulate that he hated the image of his dad driving away from him. So we changed our plan so that I did drop off whenever I could and his dad picked him up at the end of the day—for the reunion, if you will.  This solved an unanticipated big problem.
  • If you can’t agree on basic expectations and approaches to discipline, matter-of-factly acknowledge that there are differences in your homes without throwing the other parent under the bus, which only causes more distress for children who are trying to navigate through an already complex situation. “That’s right, Mommy and Daddy have different rules in our houses. Mommy’s rule is you can eat in front of the TV; Daddy’s rule is no TV during mealtime. I know you like Mommy’s rule better because you love TV. But we’ll tell stories instead at our meals.” Once your child sees that you are sticking to your limit they adapt.

Kids don’t grow up in perfect worlds, nor do they need to. What children do need are parents, whether living together or not, who demonstrate respect for each other, communicate calmly, without anger, and who make their child’s needs the central focus of their decision-making. And if you need help doing this, you wouldn’t be the first. Helping parents establish this kind of partnership is a major part of the work we do together to help them be the parents they want to be to their children.