Negotiating parenting conflicts

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If you are like most people, there are certain aspects of parenting that you and your partner (or ex-partner) just can’t agree on. Maybe you think kids thrive best when there is a strict schedule and routine and dad/mom takes a more relaxed, ‘go with the flow’ approach, arguing that kids needs a little flexibility and ‘bedtime’ should be a suggestion rather than a rule. Maybe s/he feels that older children should be given an allowance for chores and you feel that maintaining the home is a family responsibility that nobody gets paid for, including children. Or maybe you disagree on bigger issues such as the use of spanking and physical punishment or what –  if any – religion your child(ren) will follow. Whatever the issue, it is certainly not uncommon for there to be differences in parenting styles and disagreements are bound to occur. Our approaches to parenting are influenced by our personal value and belief systems and are often a reflection of (or reaction to) the way we were raised. Because we all have different histories of childhood, full consensus on all aspects of parenthood is unlikely, and it is important to know how to deal with conflict when it does arise.

A certain amount of conflict or disagreement between parents is normal and not likely to be damaging to children. There is a wonderful learning opportunity when children see their parents actively negotiating and compromising through a difference of opinion. If children witness their parents resolving differences peacefully, they will learn that people – in and out of a relationship – can work through disagreements without relying on aggressive or combative tactics.

Chronic, heated and/or aggression-filled arguments, however, can be very distressing for children and do not make for a happy, healthy family. Moreover, parenting disagreements over key issues such as behaviour, discipline, safety, etc. can result in contradictory messages to children, and they can end up not knowing what is expected of them, leading to anxiety and/or challenging behaviour. In cases where the parents are divorced or separated, frequent arguments over how to raise the child(ren) can leave them with the impression that they are the reason for the dissolution of the relationship. In cases where there is out and out disapproval of what the other parent is saying or doing, or when tempers are likely to flare, disagreements over parenting should take place behind closed doors and out of children’s earshot. Nor should one parent ever threaten the other’s relationship with the children by disparaging them in front of the children.

So, how can parenting conflicts be resolved in a healthy, productive way? Opening up effective lines of communication about all issues related to parenting can be an important first step. Make your values, beliefs and expectations known before disagreements arise (ideally, all couples would do this before having children, but it’s never too late). Talk about what kind of relationship you want to have with your children and why you feel the way you do. Talk about the way you were raised and the effect (positive and negative) it had on you. Encourage your partner or ex-partner to do the same. Having regular conversations about parenting and childhood experiences can help you both have a better understanding of where the other is coming from, and they provide an opportunity to work through differences before tempers get involved. They are also a good opportunity to find out where there is common ground, and to flush out an agreement about what you each expect from your child and the other parent. You might also want to discuss your individual strengths and weaknesses as parents, and discuss where you could use some extra support from the other person. By virtue or personality, temperament, skill and experience, certain parenting challenges might be better handled by one parent over another. One parent might be better equipped at dealing with the morning rush while the other might feel less flustered by bedtime struggles.

Whether it happens before, during or after a disagreement, it is important for all parents to feel they are heard and understood. Practicing active and empathetic listening takes work and it is an important skill in any relationship. Focus on responding to the other parent and their concerns rather than reacting from a place of anger or frustration. If you cannot come to an agreement, aim for compromise with some give and take. At times, something might be more important to one parent than the other, and at these times one might defer to the other and they might agree to respectfully disagree. Deferring to another parent should never mean that the child is facing an abusive or damaging situation.

If disagreements over parenting are leading to ongoing or escalating conflict in the family, or if the issue feels too big to tackle within the parenting relationship, it is advisable to seek third-party support. Family counsellors are skilled at listening to all sides and helping negotiate through difficult situations. Taking a parenting course together can also help both parents learn new skills and provide an opportunity to build a supportive parenting network. Building strong communication skills can help in all your relationships and will go a long way in reducing parenting conflicts. Many of the strategies you use to communicate with your partner or ex-partner can also be used in communicating with your children.