“Of course we will work as a team!” All couples intend to work together well in their parenting but most eventually admit it is a bigger challenge than they expected. It is an even bigger challenge when parents live in different houses or in a blended family situation.
The main cause of the struggle is that you are different from each other – you have different personalities and temperaments, and you were brought up differently. You will each have different perspectives on the same scenario – often shaped by what your own parents would have done; you think differently and so you arrive at different conclusions on what to do. They might not be right or wrong, just different. Many of these differences could be easily resolved if couples talked about the situations before they arose but the nature of parenting is that new, unexpected things pop up all the time. We must respond before we can confer with each other and so find ourselves at odds.
There are a number of common and tricky issues that most families encounter at some stage. The great news is that these issues can be addressed and changes made that affect the whole family and improve the atmosphere in the household. These changes work in whatever family shape you find yourself. It is a matter of learning what ‘little dances’ are going on and how to work in tandem, not in opposition.
1. Dad says ‘No’ and mum says ‘Yes’
One parent makes a decision and the other parent, often egged on by the child, disputes that decision. You can see this ‘dance’ in the supermarket – dad has said ‘No’ to the lollies but then mum is appealed to and she hesitates. She would really like to say ‘Yes’ and is very tempted to overrule a decision she is not fully committed to.
Children are great little researchers and soon discover what they can gain by creating a division between mum and dad. Often they can get what they want and, even if they don’t, they can still erode parental authority if they can provoke an argument. This situation is also likely to cause resentment in the parent who is being overruled.
Of course you will have different opinions from your partner in numerous situations but it is important to back each other up. If it is only an issue of personal preference, set it aside and back your partner even if you don’t see the need to be that strict or that soft. Very rarely will the specific issue be more important than presenting a harmonious ‘united front’ to your child. Naturally, if the issue is likely to come up again, put your point of view to your partner outside of junior ear-shot.
2. The see-saw
This dance occurs when one parent tends to be strict, controlling and a bit on the harsh side and the other parent feels they have to be softer and more lenient to compensate, or vice versa. They think, “If she is too hard on the kids, I have to be the soft one so that they are not scared,” or, “If he is too soft and indulgent, then I have to balance the books and be the disciplinarian.” Both parents can feel forced into a style or parenting position that they don’t really want to be in. It is easy to feel resentful when forced to counterbalance your partner’s style of parenting.
There can be value in the ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine but do alternate – it shouldn’t just be one parent who plays all the games and the other parent who always has to pull them into line. Both parents should have times when they can relax and have fun with their kids. Similarly, either parent should feel they could do appropriate discipline if necessary. Avoid getting stuck in roles by swapping them so that the stricter parent swaps with the more lenient parent and does the things that that parent would normally do and vice versa. You can learn from each other’s style – perhaps mum could firm up and not rescue the kids and dad could be easier and kinder with his tone and manner. It’s fun and it helps each parent see things from a different angle.
3. Switching off
One parent can feel they are doing the lion’s share of the parenting while the other one sits by, apparently oblivious to what is going on. When one parent seems to abdicate and is no longer ‘emotionally present’ to help follow through with something that the child has been asked to do, anger and frustration can be the result. Let’s give the less active parent the benefit of the doubt here – it is unlikely they don’t care, are unwilling to help or that they are bone idle; more likely they just don’t perceive the need to do anything. Again it is a ‘difference’ thing – usually due to the examples they saw during their own upbringing or maybe some lingering old-fashioned stereotypes about the roles of mums and dads.
Do stay tuned in. Both parents need to stay mindful of what is going on and check in with each other as to what is needed. It can really help if the parent who is not initiating the requests for action from the child(ren) stays alert and can be vigilant enough to step in firmly and gently when the child is losing focus or ignoring that parent. It would sound something like – “Nathan, off you go, Love. I heard Dad ask you to get in your pyjamas as soon as you had finished your turn on the computer.” And if you are the parent who is not feeling supported, do try putting your wishes into specific requests.
4. He/she is a twit!
Running the other parent down can be done subtly or overtly. Eye rolling, sighing and looks of ‘what on earth are you doing?’ are powerful ways of undermining authority – not just of your partner, but of both of you. Your child might join you in your contempt for your partner, or side with your partner against you; either way, disrespect will not make your parenting any easier.
Respect is a key thing to model to your children. Maybe you can see a much better way of doing something. Maybe the other parent really does not have your ability to do good parenting. There is a time and a place to talk about these things but it is probably better to just compose yourself, hold your tongue and stop your sighing when the kids are around!
5. Parent-to-child alliance
Some of the factors mentioned above can sometimes result in a parent who feels closer to their child than to their partner. Maybe they have a need to be liked, needed or adored by a child because of big unmet needs in their own life; or they think that their partner is out of touch with what their child really needs. Maybe it would look like this –
- You whisper to your child that when daddy has gone to work they will be allowed back on the computer.
- You slip your child the money that her mother said she could only have by doing a chore.
- You wink knowingly at your child, showing that the two of you have a special understanding.
- It might even be as obvious as you and your child talking about something that excludes the other parent’s thoughts or opinions.
The primary alliance needs to be parent-to-parent! Children feel safer and more secure when they know they cannot drive a wedge between their parents. This does not mean that they won’t try but, deep down, they don’t want to be successful in dividing parents. A child left to control the relationships in a family has been given way too much power and it will ‘rattle’ them. Children are reassured when the big people in their lives are the ones who work together for their good. You are not excluding them – you are welcoming them to be part of the family – but just not as the boss or commander.
“A couple of things have helped. The first was the revelation of the importance of presenting ourselves as a ‘parental unit’ – not just in terms of being seen to back each other but also in actively demonstrating that our relationship as a couple comes first. I think some of the power struggles we’ve had with Annie in the past were because we tried to be as inclusive with her as possible, perhaps giving her the idea that she is an equal and therefore needs to compete for one or the other parent’s attention when we are all together.” From a parent, June 2014
6. Keeping the information to yourself
It is obvious – if one parent is around a child more during the day then they are going to know more about what is going on. The other parent arriving home cannot possibly be as aware of how tired or hungry they are, or how long they have been waiting for something or what disappointed them at school that day. The child may be on the verge of losing it but, unless the parent arriving home is good at telepathy, they will walk straight into a minefield. They might be keen to be of assistance but they don’t have the ‘lay of the land’.
They might make wrong assumptions – for example, they might think that a child taking a long time to get into the shower is just fooling around, when it might be that the child is really sad about something. Just like when nurses go off duty and leave notes for the next nurses to read up on, make a point of deliberately ‘passing the baton’ when your partner is about to step into parenting duty. I suggest having some interaction over a cup of tea or a glass of wine – you can pass on the information, the kids get to see your strong relationship and you will enjoy a bit of time together before the next surge of activity.
“No! Mummy feed me.” “No! Daddy tuck me in.” “No! Mummy take me to the toilet.” Children can have a favourite parent and in the early days it can seem quite cute (as long as you are the favourite one). But it is exhausting for the one parent doing all the work and it excludes the other. The child becomes less flexible as they feel entitled to ‘own’ a parent and that is too much power for a wee person! Of course, it might pander to our pride, as secretly we really do believe that we are best story reader, the best at giving baths and at feeding the child – maybe the best at everything.
Give your partner the opportunity to get better. Don’t hog the relationship with your child. Yes, children go through phases of liking one parent more than the other, but gently and firmly wean them off having you all to themselves. Help your child build connections with the other parent – it will come back to bless you!
Children look to the big people in their lives to show them how to behave. They watch how parents work together and they learn from that model. If children can see respect, negotiation, discussion and consideration, they will feel safe and secure and can get on with the business of being children within a family, not children ruling the family.