Disagreements About Parenting Can Be Challenging For Both Parents And Kids
Heather and I recently hosted a discussion with parents at Portfolio School, a local independent K-5 school in Tribeca, about when parents aren’t on the same page about parenting. In Heather and my experience, both in our NYC therapy practice and out, the substance of all but the most serious disagreements is never more important than parents’ need to present a united front with their kids.
Even though Tribeca Therapy treats both adults and couples, we’ve come to really appreciate the challenges related to parenting when disagreements occur through working with kids and families in particular. When children are in therapy with us, their parents are also in therapy, and while that can take many forms, including family therapy, parents in therapy or kids primarily in therapy, it’s essential that working with parents is central, given how critical they are to their kid’s development.
In therapy, kids talk to their parents and us all the time in ways that give us data. Kids know when their parents disagree–they can feel it. They can also take advantage of these disagreements by splitting their parents.
Kids Need To See Their Parents As In Charge
It’s essential that kids see their parents as sailing the ship and doing so in a way that is confident and makes kids think their parents are on it. Parents are the leaders of the family and need to be seen by kids as in charge. If kids sense that there is no one at the wheel, so to speak, in the form of absent parents or that there is a disagreement or conflict around parenting, it is unconsciously frightening for them. It can make children feel insecure.
Parents need communicate that they are in charge even if, behind the scenes, there is uncertainty. It’s okay for parents not to know what to do, and it’s also okay if there is conflict among them. But, parents can’t make that fully apparent to children. Parents not being on the same page can cause a lot of anxiety for kids, which can come out in various ways, including separation anxiety, acting out behaviors, and pushing back behaviors, in which a kid will really push boundaries and look for opportunities to capitalize on their parents’ disagreements.
Leading Can Also Mean Following One Partner’s Leadership, Even When You Disagree
So many parents we work with in our NYC therapy practice are smart and have read countless parenting books. In short, they’re used to leading. However, leadership can also look like learning to recognize when one partner is leading and having the humility to follow that leadership, even if you disagree. With the parents we see who are accustomed to leading, sometimes it can feel out of character to say, perhaps, “Ok, I’ll let you manage the Halloween candy situation.”
However, being in agreement and inspiring confidence is, in most instances, more critical than any related disagreements about parenting. For example, a kid asks to stay up late and Parent A says, “Yes.” Parent B doesn’t agree. Maybe Parent B can relent, or step away from the child and talk it through with their partner. But, what he or she can’t do is say, “Well, Parent A was wrong…”
What Can Parents Do To Try To Get On The Same Page?: Practice Radical Curiosity
A big way parents can combat these disagreements about parenting is through radical curiosity. Radical curiosity means being deeply curious about not just a partner’s position on a given issue, but also being curious about the values that underlie it, why it’s important and what the history of that issue is.
This isn’t always easy. Parents can see themselves as having been curious and already listened to their partner’s point of view. In a therapy session, though, we might say, “Indulge me.” Part of what we’re getting at is not listening to make a counterpoint or listening as an opposing litigator, but listening to learn more about what is behind that point of view, regardless of whether you agree. In a sense, it’s helpful for parents to step back and essentially say, “I think your opinion is wrong, but let me understand your values, what your strategy is and how it came to be.” In doing this, there is room for empathy and an opportunity for a hardened stance to soften.