The United Front: Working Together as Parents

Robert Taibbi

It was happening again. From the kitchen Beth could hear Sarah whining to Jim about staying up till the end of the TV show, and then heard Jim caving in with his standard “just this once.” They both had agreed—Sarah’s bedtime was 9:00. Beth was infuriated. If she said anything about it right now, he once again would look like the good guy while she wound up being the witch.

No doubt you’ve heard it before: it’s important for parents to present a united front to the children by agreeing on rules and backing each other up. Not only does this help to provide the consistent, predictable structure that helps children feel safe and calm, it avoids children playing one parent against the other and becoming manipulative. Finally, as Beth would attest, it keeps one parent from looking good at the expense of the other.

Unfortunately, it’s another parenting challenge that’s easier said than done. There are plenty of reasons and opportunities that can keep parents from working together or cause the united front to collapse. Here are a few of the common ones:

Stress and styles. The old “opposites attract” truism that shapes our intimate relationships —he’s laid back, she’s not; she’s good with details, he’s not; he’s fiery and passionate, she’s cooler and more rational—shapes our parenting as well. Born from our childhood experience and the model of our own parents, each of us begins parenting with different expectations of ourselves, our children, and the responsibilities and role of our partners. Though initially intriguing, over time or under stress, our differences can turn into emotional landmines. While his laid-back style is generally a good complement to her “follow the rules” approach, periodically it seems more like a slouching disregard for any consistency; while her attention to detail was a welcomed asset to the relationship, it now seems overly rigid and harsh. His passion brings excitement into the relationship but also unexpectedly fuels irrational tirades.

This rubbing of personality and styles may be some what is happening to Beth and Jim. Coming from different backgrounds, their challenge was to cobble together roles, rules and restrictions that they could agree on. While they can hold it together much of the time, given just enough stress—Jim is too tired or Beth is worried about her job—it’s easy for the agreements to get overridden with one or both falling back to their baselines. Beth gets adamant about consistency and structure, Jim gets slack and lets things slide. Polarization. If this slipping only happens every once in a while, the kids will feel more lucky than damaged, Beth will feel irritated and scold, Jim might be defensive, but their basic belief in their agreements will get them back on track. But what if this were to continue? Any patterns that continue for any length of time in a family can quickly take on momentum and a life of their own. Rather than just getting off track, each parent bounces off of and overcompensates for the other. The more strict Beth seems to Jim, the more Jim feels sorry for the kids and gives in, further causing Beth to feel that she is the only one responsible for imposing any discipline—and they both become polarized and stuck in the pattern. The process is both subtle and powerful, and often without much conscious thought or intention the roles become entrenched. Mom really does become the witch, Dad the good guy, the kids know how to work it, and never the twain shall meet.

Underground battles. It’s said that sex and money are always the potential arenas for power struggles in a relationship, but so are kids. Sometimes what seems like conflicts in parenting are really conflicts in the marriage with children serving as the battlefield. Here the problem doesn’t lie so much in different personalities or roles, but in unresolved and ongoing anger between the partners. Sometimes this takes the form of open and constant arguments in front of the children about the way they should be managed, other times the more victimized parent identifies with the victimized children and either becomes the ring leader of the children’s gang, leading the charge against the tyrant, or plays the silent saboteur who never openly disagrees, but covertly supports the kids and undermines the other parent. Whatever form it takes, the children, confused, conflicted and caught in the crossfire, are the real victims.

Ages and stages. Finally, the united front can collapse not because of underground conflict, ingrained polarization, or different styles, but more simply due to each parent’s own strengths and weaknesses handling the changing developmental challenges and personality shifts of the children as they grow. Beth, for example, may do a good job holding the line with 6-year-old Sarah, but may quickly crack under the seemingly relentless demands of 14-year-old Scott. While Jim can easily cut through Scott’s teenage push-the-limit ploys, Sarah’s whine quickly unravels him.

Our sensitivity to the children and our up-and-down competence too are linked to our childhood and adolescent experiences, impressions of the ways our parents may have handled us at the time. As our children grow, their changes trigger in us old-new emotions of those times in our past. Subtly and often unconsciously, these “push our buttons.” In spite of usually knowing better, we find ourselves doing what we don’t want to do, over and over again.

The purpose in mentioning these pitfalls is not to make you feel discouraged, but rather to show how easy and normal it is to get off track, and help you begin to think about where your problems may lie. Here are some guidelines to help you and your partner work better as a team:

Take stock of the problem. Try and take a step back and look at the problem, pattern, and process between you and your partner. How often does your united front collapse? Every once in a while, consistently lately with all of the kids, one of them? What would you guess is the cause—more stress than usual that makes it easy to fall back to individual styles and hard to hold the line, underlying marital tensions that get played out through the kids? Maybe agreed-to rules aren’t really agreed-to or are simply not working. Perhaps some old emotional buttons are getting pushed by a particular child.

Talk. Getting the problem on the table is not only the starting point for solving the problem, but often half the solution. Once concerns are expressed they’re harder to ignore. In order to ensure success, it’s important to separate the conversation from the heat of the moment. Beth, for example, needs to talk to Jim later that evening about his giving in to Sarah, rather than yelling at him when she’s so upset. Remember to use I statements—“I felt angry when you let Sarah stay up”—rather than “you never do…” accusations. Move towards saying what you see as a pattern or think might be the underlying problem. “It seems like you have a hard time when Sarah whines,” or “I know I’ve been overwhelmed by work lately so I’m having a hard time cutting the kids any slack,” or “I thought we agreed that 9:00 was a reasonable bedtime, but I’m wondering if you feel like it’s too early,” or “I know we have been having a hard time lately between us and am worried that we are taking it out on the kids.”

As with most communication, it’s less important what you say then how you say it. It’s important to be calm rather than angry, to listen rather than make your point, to make the other person feel safe enough to share his side of the story rather than getting feeling cornered, criticized and defensive. If the conversation gets stuck or heated, back up and try again, or take a break and circle back around later.

Once there is agreement on what the underlying problem is, discuss possible solutions. If it’s stress, look for ways to support each other. Often deliberately double-checking with each other on decisions for a while might not keep the kids from dividing you, but avoids either of you from going on auto pilot. If the problem is marital tensions, begin by separating them from the parenting concerns, and consider getting some professional help if it seems too difficult or stressful to tackle together.

Be ready to renegotiate. If each of you are overcompensating for the other, it’s time to start over and renegotiate the rules and agreements. Again, a successful process ensures a successful outcome, and both partners need to feel that they are being heard and are actively agreeing. If Beth winds up feeling run over by Jim and disregarded or simply gives in to avoid discussion or conflict, her low-lying resentment and lack of commitment can easily lead to undermining and polarization once again.

It’s a good idea to periodically check in with each other to make sure you both are still on the same page, and that rules that you are using are still a working and appropriate. What seems to be a reasonable bedtime for Sarah now, may not be by next year. By anticipating changes and discussing them together, parents keep working as a team.

Help each other develop skills. Because one parent is often better with different ages, stages and temperaments than the other, you can use each other not to step in but rather to step up. If Jim knows he, unlike Beth, is vulnerable to Sarah’s requests, he can use Beth as an in-house coach to help him learn to deal with Sarah better. Maybe Beth can come in the room and simply stand there providing Jim with the non-verbal support he needs to say no. Similarly, Jim may be able to give Beth tips on what to say to disarm Scott when their son starts pushing the limits. What is most important is that the request for support and help come from the person who needs it, rather than being imposed by the other partner. If Beth, for example, pressures Jim to handle Sarah her way, he’s apt to not hear the advice but feel the pressure, and instinctively dig in, making matters worse. The best help is always the help the other says he or she needs most.

Allow for each other’s style and personality. Presenting a united front only means that parents are both agreeing and upholding the same bottom lines with their children. It doesn’t mean that both parents robotically act the same. In order to develop their individuality, children need to see, appreciate and adapt to the individuality of each of their parents. They need to know that they can’t exploit parents’ differences, but they also need to see that differences are respected rather than criticized, that parents with different starting points and outlooks can work together to…well, work together.

This is probably the biggest lesson that children can learn from parents, namely, how to deal with normal differences in relationships. By observing a healthy give-and take between the parents, children see how differences can lead to agreement, learn that honoring these agreements is important, that through listening and discussion agreements can be changed to reflect the changes in individuals and relationships that naturally occur over time, that by supporting each other both individuals can grow. When it comes down to it, it’s not the united front that is so important as process of creating it.

Robert Taibbi is Director, Child and Family Services, Region Ten Community Services Board and the author of two books and over 125 articles on clinical practice, parenting and family life.

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