Most couples have experienced this situation at one time or another—you think you should discipline your child a certain way, and your spouse or co-parent wants to handle it differently. You each become entrenched in your position. And what started as a problem between you and your child quickly evolves into a problem between you and your spouse. You are no longer parenting as a team.
At some point, most couples will disagree and argue over how to discipline their children. After all, you and your spouse are different people who will naturally approach parenting differently at times—maybe more often than you’d like. Disagreement in any marriage is to be expected, especially over raising your kids.
For example, let’s say you believe your child should be punished harshly for missing curfew while your spouse doesn’t think it’s such a big deal. Or perhaps you disagree on how to handle poor performance in school, drinking, or what to do about an older child who is still living at home and not getting on with life. As a result, you react differently and aren’t on the same page when it comes to consequences.
Here’s the truth: kids know when their parents aren’t unified in their decisions about discipline. And their lack of unity creates anxiety for these kids because they are unsure of the rules and what matters and what doesn’t. And this anxiety contributes to further behavior issues.
Or, and this happens frequently, kids learn to get off the hook for a behavior problem by playing one parent off the other. Kids figure out very quickly that when their parents are fighting with each other, the focus is no longer on them.
Kids also figure out that if they can get one parent to be an ally then it’s now a two against one battle and the child-parent team usually wins.
This is not the situation you want to be in with your spouse or your child. It’s why unity with your spouse, even if you disagree, is important in addressing your child’s behavior problems.
Unity is hard, but it is achievable. Following the guidelines below will help you learn to parent more effectively by making sure that normal parenting disagreements don’t destroy the unified front that your child needs to be accountable and to behave appropriately.
Make it a rule that if one parent disciplines a child, the other parent must back it up, even if the other parent disagrees with the punishment. You and your spouse need to present yourselves as a unified team to your child or it will undermine your authority as parents.
Later, when things are calm and you’re out of earshot of your child, you and your spouse can discuss alternate ways of handling things.
If you are not unified in front of your child, your child will learn that he can get around any parenting decision by playing one parent off the other. Or by looking for help from one parent when the other tries to discipline.
And understand that every time you argue with your spouse over parenting, the focus shifts away from where it should be—your child’s behavior. Therefore, keep the focus on your child whenever your child is present. And address disagreements with your spouse in private.
Note: If you feel that your spouse is physically or emotionally harming your child then you need to say, “I can’t go along with this.” Then take the necessary steps to make sure your child is safe.
If you and your spouse disagree on an issue and you can’t seem to find a compromise, then try to defer to the parent who feels more strongly about it.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re okay with your 12-year-old going to a sleepover at a good friend’s house. Nevertheless, your spouse is opposed. Your spouse isn’t comfortable allowing your child to have that kind of independence. Or maybe your spouse doesn’t trust the other family. But if you are still adamant about your position, you might say:
“I feel so strongly about this. I’d like you to support me on this, even if you don’t see it the same way.”
“Can I ask you to go along with me on this one, even if you don’t agree? I can’t say for certain that this is the best decision, but my gut is telling me to give it a try. Can you support me on this?”
If your spouse is the one who seems most adamant, try to accommodate his or her position.
Remember, the goal isn’t to get things your way one-hundred percent of the time. The goal is to parent your child effectively and, at the same time, maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse.
If your spouse feels more strongly about something and you’ve decided to go along with their decision, you can say this to your child:
“I know it’s hard for you when we won’t let you go on a sleepover. I see it bothers you because you feel you are ready for this independence.”
You’re empathizing with your child’s feelings, but not breaking the unified stance. When you show empathy, your child also feels he’s understood and not so alone. Nevertheless, your child still must go along with the decision you’ve made with your spouse.
But don’t throw your spouse under the bus. By that, I mean don’t disparage your spouse in any way. And emphasize to your child that this is a joint decision even if behind closed doors you and your spouse don’t completely agree.
Consider the following scenario:
When it’s time to do his homework, your son says he “hates math” and complains about his teacher.
Your husband yells at him and says that he needs to bring up his math grade.
Immediately, your child looks to you for help and, as if on cue, you jump in and say, “Leave him alone—he’s doing fine.”
Your husband replies, “If he was doing fine he would have gotten a better grade.”
Now the fight is ramping up. You respond with, “You’re too strict—that’s why he’s like this. You’re too hard on him.”
Meanwhile, as the fight goes on, your child has his head buried in his phone and doesn’t do the homework he was supposed to do.
In the above scenario, the parents focus on each other rather than their child. And when this happens, the child isn’t held accountable for his behavior and the unacceptable behavior continues.
And not only that, the fight between the parents raises the anxiety level in the house which makes it more likely for your child to either act out or isolate himself.
In the end, your child’s behavior won’t change if you’re more focused on fighting your spouse than holding your child accountable for his behavior.
And also understand that kids learn quickly how to play one parent off the other and many kids will manipulate the situation to their advantage. They know that they’re off the hook as long as you are fighting with your spouse.
Talk about parenting decisions when you are calm and you can listen to one another’s perspective without being overly critical or attacking.
Calm makes it is easier for you to discuss things with respect. And respect helps you find common ground because respect makes it easier for you to understand each other.
If you are talking with your spouse and you find that the conversation is getting more and more hostile, then take a time-out. Take a walk or go for a drive. When you come back later, set up a time to talk. You can say to your spouse:
“Let’s each spend a few minutes talking about this. I’m just going to listen to you and I’m not going to say a word. I’m not going to interrupt you. Just let me hear why this one is so important to you because you don’t usually hold onto things so strongly.”
And keep in mind that hostility isn’t just yelling and fighting. Hostility can include sarcasm, dismissive comments, put-downs, subtle threats, and other forms of damaging communication. Don’t let your conversations escalate to this level—be mindful when it is happening and take that time-out.
Perhaps it’s difficult for you to understand your spouse’s perspective on parenting because it’s so different from your own, and you end up feeling critical of his way of thinking.
I recommend that you get to know your spouse’s family history and how deeply those beliefs are rooted. It may help you to see things more objectively and less personally, and you will then be able to respond with less judgment. In the process, you will also better understand your own history and belief system.
Try to help each other to see that safety issues and cultural norms change over time. What might have worked back when your spouse was a kid might not make sense now. Or what worked in his family when he was growing up might be different than what will work in your family now.
Remember, this is your family, not your parents’ family. You and your spouse get to decide the rules in your family.
It helps couples to give each other a few minutes to talk about why a certain issue is important. If you can each spend a few minutes just hearing the other person without reacting then you give yourselves a chance to come to terms with each other. Just listen. And don’t interrupt. Try to understand your spouse’s point of view and often you’ll find common ground that you didn’t realize existed. You can say:
“What can we do to compromise?”
“I hear you. Now I understand why this is so important to you. I don’t feel as strongly, but I’ll support your decision.”
Most importantly, you will both know you’ve been heard. And as I mentioned earlier, do this when you are calm and it will be much easier to listen constructively.
If you feel like you’ve tried everything and you’re still not able to get on the same page with your spouse, you may need some professional help in the form of a therapist.
A good therapist will help you find ways to talk with each other productively. A good therapist will teach you how to stop fighting over every parenting issue that comes up. And that will help you be unified in your dealings with your child.
All of us have negative communication habits and patterns that we may not notice unless a neutral party, like a therapist, points it out to us. Negative communication patterns may include the following:
These communication patterns lead to escalating hostility. Indeed, what ought to be a normal conversation or a minor disagreement becomes a fight, but not because of the disagreement but because of how you communicate.
The good news is that when couples recognize these habits they can improve their communication substantially and the hostility subsides. In the ensuing calm, they can get on the same page or at least find an amicable compromise.
Believe it or not, natural differences between spouses can be treated as strengths. Differences can help us expand our perspectives and understand one another better. But only if we can communicate effectively, we can overlook minor offenses, and we can forgive one another.
The bottom line is that we all have different ways of communicating and different belief systems—and that’s fine. No two people are going to come together with the same opinions and values one-hundred percent of the time.
The important thing is to find a way to come together so your child is not pulled into the middle of your differences.
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program (which is included in The Total Transformation® Online Package) and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.