Peter Roussos, M.A., MFT (CA Lic MFC 34711)
Couple, Individual and Family Psychotherapy Services
AASECT Certified Sex Therapist
Disagreement and conflict is a natural and important part of relationships, and the ability to manage disagreements and conflict is a key measure of relationship functioning. When disagreements and conflict are handled in healthy ways, the relationships between the parties (and the parties themselves) are strengthened. When disagreements and conflict are handled in unhealthy ways, the relationship and the parties suffer.
For married couples with children, disagreements about child rearing can be a significant source of conflict and distress. For divorced families, disagreements between the parents about child rearing can lead to protracted tension, conflict, and litigation. In stepfamilies, the couple is faced not only with the same parenting issues that married and divorced familiescontendwith, but also the issue of stepparent authority. The parenting figures in a child's life can include parents, stepparents, grandparents, and any other adult that is in a position of parental authority. In this article my references to co-parents and co-parenting refer to all parental figures in a child's life.
How we were raised is a primary influence on how we think about the role and methods of parenting. It can be challenging for people who were raised in different ways to come to mutual consensus and agreement about how best to parent their children. Being able to come to such agreement, however, is beneficial to parents and their children. Obviously consensus and agreement reduce tension and conflict. Achieving consensus around parenting issues also helps parents to present a consistent, more "united front" to children, and children do better with consistent parenting.
While parenting disagreements can be uncomfortable, they also represent a teaching opportunity for our children. Just as we learned about relationships by observing our parents, so do our children learn from our parenting. If we are able to approach disagreements with a spirit of flexibility, cooperation and collaboration, we not only have a better chance of resolving issues in a manner that is healthier for all parties involved, we have also modeled for our children what effective and healthy conflict resolution can be. Every conversation is an opportunity to model appropriate and effective communication behaviors to our children.
It is best for children if all of the parent figures (including stepparents from re-marriage) are working together to reduce parenting conflicts. This is not always possible; sometimes the level of acrimony between parents is such that they are not able to even speak to each other without conflict erupting. Parents need to understand that such discord sends a very powerful, destructive message to children. What children observe in the interactions between their parents is a primary influence on how the children think about marriage and how it is supposed to work. When parents are not willing to work together, their children learn to be uncooperative.
In biological and psychological terms, children are a composite of their parents. When there is negative commenting by one parent about another, children can experience those negative comments as a reflection of themselves. These kinds of negative parenting behaviors have an unhealthy impact on the child's self-esteem and set a poor example of how to manage disagreements and conflict.
Effective communication is a key aspect of being able to resolve disagreements. There is a great deal information available about the do's and don'ts of effective communication. Quite frankly, there is so much information that it can be overwhelming. Here are two basic communication skills that you have probably heard before, but that are often overlooked in times of contention and stress. These skills can be very helpful in reducing the intensity and defensiveness of disagreements, and they are worth practicing.
1.) Use "I" messages. Using "You" language when expressing criticisms or complaints is much more likely to stimulate a defensive reaction from the person you are talking to.
2.) Distinguish between your thoughts and feelings and take responsibility for them. If you hear yourself say, "I feel that….." recognize that you are really describing a thought, and not a feeling. It is important to distinguish between thoughts and feelings because it is your experience of feelings that indicates the significance and depth of a particular issue to you. How you articulate your feelings informs others of that significance.
Here is an example of less effective communication: "You make me angry. I feel that you are undermining my authority with the children."
A more effective and appropriate way of communicating this would be: "I think that my authority with the children is undermined when you contradict me, and I feel angry about that."
When parenting conflicts occur, do not begin your discussions by focusing on what you disagree on. It will be more useful to begin by defining as specifically as possible (the more detailed and specific, the better) the following. You may want to write out:
1.) What your parenting goals are for that specific issue. What is it that you want your child to learn? BE AS DETAILED AND SPECIFIC AS POSSIBLE.
2.) For each parenting goal, define why the goal is important to you and how you think it serves your child. BE AS DETAILED AND SPECIFIC AS POSSIBLE.
3.) For each parenting goal, define what you think needs to be done in order to achieve that goal. BE AS DETAILED AND SPECIFIC AS POSSIBLE.
When all of the parent figures (include stepparents) have completed their lists, sit down and discuss what you have come up with. Begin by comparing your lists, looking first for your areas of agreement. It may be, for example, that you agree on goals but have different views about how to achieve those goals.
When you begin to discuss your areas of disagreement, communicating why each goal is important to you provides additional information to the other parent about your thoughts and feelings about the issue. As you are discussing these items, talk about how your own upbringing has shaped the way you think and feel about the issue. Be open to talking about your concerns; what is it that you fear might happen to your child if you don't fulfill your parenting goals? How does your upbringing influence your fears?
I can't stress enough the importance of being detailed and specific. It will help each of the parties involved to have a better understand his/her own viewpoint and the different viewpoints of the other parties. With more information each party will have a fuller understanding of what the areas of agreement and disagreement are. You need to understand exactly what the areas of disagreement are before you can begin looking for solutions.
After you have shared your viewpoints as outlined above and after you think that you have a good understanding of the other parent's or stepparents' position, you can begin brainstorming. Brainstorming is the generation of ideas for possible solutions to the disagreement. For brainstorming to be most useful, it is important that initially any and all ideas be included. As you begin brainstorming, don't reject any idea as unreasonable; get all of the ideas out on the table and then together you can cull through them rejecting
elements that don't work and integrating elements that do. The objective is to see if together you can arrive at a way of approaching the parenting issue that all the parties involved (parents and children) can feel good about.
Consider involving your children in your parenting discussions. Giving children the opportunity to express and have their opinions heard communicates to them that what they think and feel is important. This is an affirming experience that supports healthy self-esteem. Again, when it is appropriate for an issue, including your children in your parenting problem-solving discussions can be helpful to you and them. If you are able to include their ideas in your solutions, they are more likely to "buy in" to your solution, and they will be more likely to comply with it.
If after hearing and fully understanding your children's ideas you choose not to utilize them, just having the opportunity to express their ideas and to be fully heard may help your child be more accepting of what you decide. It also shows the child that effective communication does not mean always getting what you want. Some examples of appropriate parenting discussions to include your children in would be things like: homework schedules, bed times, weekend curfews, household chores, and consequences for misbehavior.
If after going through these steps you are still at an impasse, try exchanging viewpoints. Take your spouse (or co-parent's or child's) position and discuss the issue with you representing his/her side of the issue. At the very least, his/her feedback will tell you if you really understand his/her viewpoint. This may also help you establish an empathic connection with him/her.
Consider doing some research for parenting disagreements that involve different viewpoints about what is developmentally appropriate for kids at your children's ages. Your child's teachers can be a useful source of information for you. You may also want to do some reading about child development. Your child's teacher or school counselor should be able to recommend some books to you. If you have girls, I would encourage you to read: Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher, Ph.D. For boys, Real Boys by William Pollack, Ph.D. is also excellent.
If disagreements persist, you and your spouse or other co-parent(s) may want to consider a consultation with a therapist or collaborative coach. Such services can help parents develop more effective communication, negotiation, and problem solving skills. Information about such services is available on my website: www.peterroussos.com.
Sometimes the parenting issue that appears to be fueling a dispute is not really the core issue. Parents might find themselves arguing about their children as a way of avoiding dealing with deeper issues within their marriage. As uncomfortable as the co-parenting tension is, it may be less anxiety provoking than directly dealing with deeper marital issues. A consultation with a marriage and family therapist can help you identify and address the deeper issues.
In families where there has been a divorce, arguments about the children are often symptomatic of unresolved issues and emotions related to the marriage and ending of the marriage. In such circumstances, a consultation with a therapist can also be very helpful.
For step families it is very important to discuss and define what the stepparent's role and authority is. The blending of families can be quite challenging and can have a significant impact on the forming of the new marital relationship. Here again a consultation with a therapist can help.
The reality is that the only person's behavior we can really control is our own. Ultimately all you can do is invite your spouse or co-parent(s) to join you in trying to improve parenting behaviors. Whether or not they choose to do so is up to them. Regardless of whether or not they decide to join you, your improved skills and behaviors will better serve your children and will support your own sense of integrity, which will be healthy and important modeling for your children.
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