We all enter into a relationship with baggage from the past.
Before we have kids it might not be so apparent, nor matter too much. But once we have a family our own mum or dad can suddenly come out in us. It can be a shock for the other parent to see a new side of someone they have lived with for a while, to see their partner turn into someone they feel they don’t know, or even like at times!
During parent coaching or workshops I often have parents coming up to me afterwards saying they can’t stand watching their partner parent the ‘wrong way’ or a ‘different’ way. They feel they are letting their children down if they don’t intervene or stop their partner. Often they are afraid that it will emotionally damage the child when their partner comes from a place of punishing instead of teaching, sarcasm instead of clarity, aggression instead of assertion. Or they feel that their partner is too soft, or spoils the children.
Whatever the reason is, these differences in values, styles, opinions and approach to parenting can cause friction in a couple that can negatively affect the family dynamic as a whole, and the harmony and relationship between each family member.
Common behaviours when parenting styles differ:
1, You might step in beforehand to prevent your partner from parenting:
● Your partner says, ‘where is the remote control?’ You know that it’s likely to be in your son’s room, again, but you also know that if you say so your partner will run upstairs and get mad at him. So you say, ‘I’m not sure, let me have a look’, then go and find it and say it was under the sofa and tell your son to try to remember to put it back another time so mum/dad doesn’t get mad.
● Maybe you tell your child, ‘you need to tidy your room so mum/dad will not be cross with you’.
● You might pick up their shoes (or tidy up after them) in order to prevent your partner getting upset at your child.
2, You might intervene during:
● As soon as you hear your children and partner are in the same room or you feel tension in the air you rush in to smooth out the situation, ‘come on guys it was a mistake’ or, ‘let’s calm down and talk about it later’ or, ‘don’t be so hard on him, he didn’t mean it’ or, ‘speak nicely to daddy/mummy’ etc.
3, You might try to smooth things out afterwards:
● Maybe we stand at the door waiting to calm both parties down after a fight ‘to make them feel better’ or be friends again.
● Explain mum/dad’s behaviour, ‘she is just very tired, she didn’t mean it’, ‘don’t worry about it – he had a bad day, it has nothing to do with you’ etc.
● Maybe you go to the child and give them a hug so they know that YOU are there for them and are kind to them.
● Some parents start spoiling the child because they feel sorry for them and feel they have to overcompensate for their partner’s behaviour by being overly nice and ‘easy on them’.
● I often have parents admitting that they talk about the other parent behind their back, which can happen unconsciously, as they are upset about their parenting behaviour, i.e. ‘that is so typical of daddy to say that’ or, ‘I don’t think mum would agree with you going out, I’m ok with it but you never know with her’ or, ‘If I was you I would clean that up before your dad sees it’, ‘I can’t believe mum said that, it was not very nice’. We do this because we want them to know that we don’t agree with it and that they should not take it too seriously or to heart.
This is a dangerous cocktail for everyone in the house:
● Confuses the child: no matter what a parent does or says to their child they will always love their parents and want to be with them. So when they feel we are talking negatively about their other parent it can confuse them and put them in a situation where they feel they have to choose between their parents. Our kids just want to please us so they try to get our attention and approval by agreeing with us (in the moment) and then later feel guilty and sad about talking badly about someone they love. We might also be in danger of planting a negative seed about the other parent and slowly destroying the relationship between them, which they will not thank you for later in life. Maybe your child starts resenting you or avoiding you if you are the one that adds negativity to the relationship with the other parent.
● Exhausting for the parent: to always be on guard, to be the saver and the hero can be tiring. You will find it hard to be with the family if all the time you are waiting for something bad to happen, a comment or behaviour that will lead to ‘mum/dad to the rescue ’. Also, we might find it hard when we do have to discipline our child (because we are the ‘good one’) and end up feeling guilty afterwards, even though it was done well and at the right time. Be careful, because what we choose to focus on the most, we will cultivate and grow. So by focusing on negativity and waiting for it to happen we might actually see more of it or provoke it.
● It causes friction between family relationships: your partner will most likely be upset at you for not backing him/her up in the way he/she parents. There is also a chance that they could start turning their anger on the children for causing this rift between the two of you. The other parent may even start resenting the child and become even harder on them. This will only make it worse between you and your partner and the kids as the anger and resentment escalates. Furthermore the two of you might start to find it hard to be together without the kids; the irritation and disagreement over parenting has come between you and it can make it hard to be together without thinking about those disagreements.
● Teaches the kids to disrespect you and your partner (and other authorities): If you do any of the above there is a risk that they will quickly learn that if one parent says no or sets boundaries they can always go to the other one. This sends a signal that it is ok to manipulate or ignore rules or agreements. You might be encouraging them to lie if they know that they get your attention when they tell you about what the other parent has said or done, ‘mum, dad yelled at me’ or ‘dad, mum said I couldn’t have any more ice cream as I am too fat’ etc. And you are in danger of raising lazy kids who think they can get you (or others) to take on their responsibilities because they know you will step in and take over in order to avoid the battles.
● Can create insecure kids: your kids might take it personally and think that it is their fault that mum and dad fight. Furthermore, as we are role modelling ‘how to have a relationship’ we run the risk that our kids grow up to develop connections and relationships that are based on negativity, disrespect and poor communication.
If we have more than one child, we might feel that our partner’s parenting style (soft or hard) is directed towards one particular child. This can really cause disharmony in the home. If we feel that one of our kids is being ‘picked on’ by our partner we might give him/her more time than the others and we are in danger of creating rifts and jealousy between siblings. Or if we feel that our partner has been particularly soft with one child we might spoil the other kids so they feel the ‘same love’, or be harder on the other child since we want the sibling to see that he/she is also being disciplined like they are. Ugh! What a mess!
Try instead these 4 tips:
1. Keep the communication open with your partner:
You and your partner need to sort out the mess. A family is like a big company and if the directors don’t get on or agree the team will feel it and ‘productivity’ will suffer. CLICK here to read ‘Run your family like an organisation’.
Our children CAN deal with 2 sets of parenting styles as long as they are backed up by the other and done in a measured and assertive way instead of impulsive and aggressive.
I recently worked with a couple who had differing ideas, here are a couple of examples:
● Mum was ok that the daughter went to school in her PJs if she didn’t get dressed in time, she thought there would be a natural consequence where the teacher would ‘teach’ her daughter what the rules were, maybe with a consequence etc. Dad wasn’t, he thought it sent a message that their daughter could do what she wanted, and disobey the rules.
● Mum was ok that their daughter used her hands to eat as long as it was with good manners (not playing), that it was just a way of feeling the food. Dad wasn’t, he felt that this taught her bad manners and that she would do it out in public and he would be embarrassed.
Talk about your differences and what you have in common:
The point here is that no one is right or wrong. But both parents agreed to have a weekly ‘team meeting’ where they would sit down and talk about their core values, what was important to them. What they wanted to stick to and where they were happy to meet in the middle or fully let go of something. They agreed to use an ‘I-message’ where they explained how they felt about the situation and no finger pointing or accusation. And to keep it calm.
They ended up agreeing that dad could let mum parent when it came to the PJ issues, dad would step back and not intervene with his view – and back mum up by not disagreeing in front of the child. They agreed that dad could not sit at the table and see their daughter eat with her hands so he would step in here and lead. Mum would step back and let the dad parent.
● Furthermore, they talked about where they DID agree and could meet the child with a united approach. i.e. they both agreed that their daughter needed to do more around the house and they found a way to implement it that sat well with both of them and still respected their daughter.
● Agreed to a ‘couples night’: it is not all about our kids. Try to agree to a couples date on a regular basis where it is just the two of you, how you used to be before having kids. Agree not to talk about the kids – take a night off to re-connect.
2. Control what you can control and let the rest go (accepting what is)
● Control what you can: you can’t and shouldn’t control other people. You can only control how you choose to behave. You CAN explain and suggest to your partner what sits well with you when it comes to parenting – but you cannot make her/him do it if they don’t agree. Keep to what you CAN control: how you parent and what feels right for you. You might have to let go of a few things on the way but make sure that you keep it to yourself and that at the end of the day YOU can look in the mirror and say, ‘I think I did a good job today as a parent’.
● Keep it positive: you can also control how you choose to think and where to place your energy. Think of all the good things about your partner. Remind yourself about why you are together in the first place, remember the last time she/he was kind and respectful to your kids and you and the family. This way you turn the negative energy into positive and start seeing your partner in a more positive light which will help with the next few tips. What you choose to think of the most, you will cultivate and grow! The other thing you can do is to talk positively to your partner about the kids. This will help turn the negativity around and help you both to focus on what the kids ‘are doing right’, e.g. ‘I must tell you, I had such a nice day with Sam, he was really helpful and kind’ etc. Again remember, ‘what you chose to focus the most on…’
● Think if you can learn something: maybe putting your parenting styles together can work? Maybe it is not your way or the highway? Maybe you can learn something too. It might be that you are shy of conflict and do too much simply to avoid battles.
3. Let the other parent parent – you cannot control others.
Who says that you are right? Sometimes you might want to step back and accept the way your partner parents. I know it can be hard, but we need to trust him/her that, ‘what is done in love is done well’ and that the behaviour comes from a place of goodness. Remember that kids can deal with two sets of discipline styles as long as they don’t go ‘hard against hard’ and compete and interfere with each other!
● If you have agreed to something that your partner will follow through you have to stay strong and stay away from their ‘moments’. If the kids come running to you (they may be used to you intervening and fixing the fights) you will have to support your partner’s decision, ‘I can hear you are upset and I get it – but you will have to go and sort it out with your mum/dad, this is not my fight/battle/discussion’. And maybe by doing this you will have removed some of the tension that you all sense when mum and dad go up against each other!
● Stay open minded: maybe you can learn something from your partner – we can all learn and adapt our parenting style! I know I am quite ‘mild’ in my way of raising our kids and my husband is more ‘tough’. I can sometimes learn from him and be more assertive (not aggressive).
4. Give your child a voice: I know it hurts when you see your child upset but you can use this as an opportunity to teach your child resilience by knowing that their voice and opinion matters. Instead of being a ‘go between’ and delivering messages from parent to child try to support the child to have a voice, to be head. tow rules when we are aiming for this: Respect your child’s voice as much as you do yours! and assume that your child has the ability to offer their opinion about the world they live in. Try to tell her/him, ‘I can hear you are upset because XX and I understand that you are angry/sad right now because XX and that is OK – but you are free to go and tell mum/dad how you feel’. Why is matters that kids have a voice:
- Make them feel confident that they matter too – that they have a say and impact in the environment they live in. Give the confidence to say NO when have to
- Children with “voice” have a sense of identity and strong belief in self. They are not afraid to stand up for themselves when necessary. They speak their mind and are not easily intimidated.
Once you have decided how to handle your feelings and situations you will find that:
● Home becomes a safe place to be: kids like to know what is and isn’t expected of them
● They are learning to stand up for themselves (if they disagree with your partner and you don’t fix it for them)
● They are learning how to deal with different rules and opinions
● You are role modelling a healthy relationship based on respect and good communication
Please note: if you truly think that your partner is being abusive (either emotionally or physically) to one or more of your children I suggest you seek professional advice, for instance via your GP, your local authority children’s services department or a specialist charity such as the NSPCC.
All the best from Mette Theieilmann
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