Conflicts Over Parenting Styles

When parents don't agree on how to handle the kids, the kids are the losers. 

By Juliann Garey

Every time Hartley's three boys come home from a weekend spent at their dad's house she says, "we have to deal with at least a couple days of meltdowns, before things get back to normal." Hartley's boys all have developmental and learning issues, including autism, ADHD, and anxiety. So she has her hands full. But she's found an approach to parenting her boys that she feels works well. "I parent using collaborative problem solving," She says. The collaborative problem solving approach is to assume that if kids aren't behaving appropriately, it's because they aren't able to—they don't have the emotional or cognitive skills to handle a situation more effectively. Incentives and time-outs won't really help them do better; what they need is help solving the problem that's resulting in the behavior.

"With my children, given all the challenges they face, collaborative problem solving is just an easier way for our family to get what we need," Hartley says. "Lots of people would argue that there isn't enough structure or discipline in our house but time-outs aren't going to rewire my son's brain."

Her boys' father, though, does not subscribe to collaborative problem solving. So life at his house is very different. "He thinks I exaggerate their issues," Hartley says. "So he's in a more disciplinary, time-out, spanking mode. He thinks if everybody was more disciplined and stronger they'd be...better. He spends a lot of his time enforcing rules like they must make their bed when they get up in the in the morning, which is the least of my concerns when it comes to parenting." 

At some point most couples are going to differ on how to approach parenting. "I think in almost every family you're going to find some disagreements," says Dr. Alan Ravitz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute. "In my own family I know there were times when I thought my wife was too harsh and there were times when she thought I was too easy." The important thing is to present a united front. "You shouldn't disagree in front of the child," he says. "You should disagree behind closed doors."

This becomes especially challenging when parents develop extreme differences in their approaches to parenting—particularly when the child or children are struggling with a psychiatric diagnosis or a learning disability and treatment decisions need to be made. In these situations, the parents' ability—or inability—to reach an agreement can mean the difference between successful treatment and an anxiety-provoking situation in which the child is left alone to sort out and interpret the confusing and often painful mixed signals he is getting from his parents.

Striking a Balance

Maria and Alex consider themselves to be happily married, but when they fight it's always about their children and it always goes the same way. "He would say I do not convey a message to our children that I care how they do in school or that I feel they have to work hard or that I care whether they get into a good college," Maria says. "And I think he's a hundred percent not right. And I think he's so hard on them that it leaves no room for me to be tough on them because I don't think they can be getting that message over and over again."

All three of their children, ages 12 to 16, attend a high-pressured private school. Their youngest child, Grace, has been experiencing serious anxiety, especially around school and test-taking, and she takes medication for it. "Alex was more aggressive about getting her psychiatrist to prescribe medication than I was, but I think it's helped a lot," says Maria.

"Then we got her evaluated and came to the conclusion that she was ADDish," says Maria with a heavy dose of skepticism.  Does Maria believe her daughter needs Ritalin? "I think the bar for diagnosing someone with ADD has gotten a lot, lot lower and my husband was really aggressive in wanting to get her treated with medication for that." Her husband, she says, feels that he should give all his children any possible advantage they can get.

The couple's oldest daughter began taking Prozac a couple of years ago after they became concerned that she seemed apathetic and nothing seemed to make her happy. Again, it was Alex who pushed hard for medication, his wife says. "He was like 'I. Want. To. Put. Her. On. Medication,' " Maria says, pounding her fist on her desk to convey Alex's...single-mindedness. Maria admits the Prozac seemed to help her daughter. But she also began taking Ritalin at the end of the last school year. Again, it was Alex who asked the psychiatrist to prescribe it. The reason: Allison was spending hours in her room getting nothing done. "Like working for six hours on a paper and writing three sentences," says Maria. "Does she have ADD? That I don't know."

So Maria is reluctantly going along with her husband's approach on medications. But when it comes to day-to-day parenting, Maria refuses to push as hard as Alex. He sees this as doing their children a disservice. "I really want them to feel the sense of achievement that working hard brings," Alex says. "She's allowing them to be undisciplined. I get frustrated because I feel if she would pick up the slack I could be less on top of them. But I'm not willing to have no one staying on top of them so if I have to do it all myself, I will."

Dr. Ravitz, who has been working with families for 30 years, says, "Bottom line: If the parents insist on continuing to disagree, you really can't get any data to support one side's interpretation of the problem as opposed to the other's. Because really all the data you're getting is what the child's like when the child is getting mixed signals or what the child's treatment is like when the child is getting inconsistent treatment." So someone has to be willing to compromise and let their way of doing things be back-burnered while the other parent's "style" or approach is tested. This sounds reasonable—but what if you can't even get both people into the same room?

Divorced Parenting

Nick freely admits that while he was married he left most of the childcare decision-making to his wife. "And then we got divorced," Nick says. Once he was divorced, Nick realized he didn't always agree with his wife's decisions and, no longer concerned with "keeping the peace," he began speaking up. That was 8 years ago.

The New Jersey couple's son Oscar had been an anxious kid since pre-school. Over the last few years, Nick says Oscar has struggled with social anxiety and periods of depression during which he was unable to go to school for days or weeks at a time "because," Nick says  "he was just crying all the time or semi-suicidal." Oscar was also diagnosed with ADHD.

Nick gives his ex-wife a tremendous amount of credit for making sure their son got accommodations at his public school for the diagnosis, like extra time on tests. "But during the crisis times, especially the depressions, when he was falling apart in front of us, she and I would differ on how to deal with that." Her inclination was to let him stay home until he calmed down and felt better—then deal with the fall-out later. But Nick says the fall-out—falling further and further behind in his academic work—just created more anxiety, which served to fuel the emotional fire. "And," he says, "we'd just end up playing catch up for the whole year."

When it comes to making decisions about their children, Dr. Ravitz says it's imperative that divorced parents have to want to find a middle ground. If Dr. Ravitz can get both parents into his office, he does what he can to help them along. "But if the conflict between the parents is such that there is a reflexive unthinking rejection of what the other parent has to say, then the child always suffers because the child never gets the treatment that he needs."

Vicki and her (now) ex-husband Henry had dramatically different parenting styles when they were married, and since their split 6 years ago co-parenting has been very difficult. "My biggest thing is to feel like my kids can talk to me about anything and trust me, and if there's an issue or they're worried about something or the school is worried about something I figure out the best way to address it." Vicki says even when they were married, Henry had a tendency towards what she calls "negative knee-jerk reactions" to any problems raised by the schools her sons, 16 and 11, attended.

When their oldest son was in fourth grade, the school recommended a neuropsychological evaluation, and he was diagnosed with ADHD. "The school and the doctor recommended that he be put on medication," but Henry was against it, Vicki says. "That was a point of a lot of disagreement for us. It wasn't that I was for it 100 percent but it was impossible to even have a conversation about it with him because he had such an extreme response."

Years later when Vicki and the school wanted to send their younger son for occupational therapy to improve what she calls his "terrible handwriting," Henry also vetoed that."Just the idea that everything was going to be fine on its own instead of taking steps to help it be fine," she says, "made it very hard to have a productive conversation when his reactions were so black and white."

So what is the best thing you can do for your child if you and your partner can't agree on how to parent? Dr. Ravitz says the only answer that will do your kid any good is to commit to testing one theory at a time—whether it's medicating vs. not medicating, a certain kind of behavioral therapy, or a particular style of parenting. "What I typically tell parents," he says, "is they can disagree but they have to honestly and authentically test hypotheses. So if the hypothesis is that the kid doesn't have ADHD and doesn't need medication and just needs behavioral intervention—ok let's try it for 3 or 6 months very sincerely. If it works that's great. If not, let's go to plan B. People have to compromise and they can't be stubborn."

Mixed Signals

 After years of fighting and with the help of a court-appointed parent facilitator, Dorothy has finally made peace with her ex-husband's different approach to parenting. The facilitator was especially helpful when it came to resolving issues the two had concerning their older son, who has ADHD, is on the autism spectrum, and has a number of serious learning disabilities. "The ongoing issues we have," she says, "are more mundane things like he won't enforce limited screen time, which I'm trying to do. And he sort of fibs about it. So when the kids come home they say, "Oh we watched TV for 3 hours at daddy's house."

Dorothy says there's only so much she can do about what goes on at her ex's house. "It's written into our settlement agreement that we each make the rules in our homes. So if the kids are watching something that goes until 9:00 and I tell them bedtime is 8:30 and they say 'but dad let's us stay up 'til 9:00,' I have to explain that Dad and I have different rules."

A little bedtime discrepancy is unlikely to scar anyone, but in general, kids do better with consistency. "If the child gets a mixed message it undermines a child's sense of stability," Dr. Ravitz says. "I think kids do better when they get a consistent message—even if it's the wrong message—than when they get the message that one parent thinks the other doesn't know what he or she is talking about. That's very confusing and upsetting for children."

Dr. Carole Eagle, Professor Emeritus at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine and former head of Child Psychology of Montefiore Hospital, says she's seen patients recently in her private practice with whom almost all of the therapy has been devoted to helping the child navigate the extreme differences between mom and dad. "I just finished working with a girl who had multiple learning disabilities," she says. At first the girl's parents disagreed about her diagnosis but eventually that issue was resolved. After that however, Eagle had to help the girl, who was nine when she began treatment three years ago, develop a healthy self-image despite living part of the time with a father who was overly harsh and critical and the rest of the time with a mother who was overly indulgent and babied her.

"Therapy was very much about having my support to recognize that this was dad's way of doing things and this was mom's way of doing things," says Eagle, instead of turning it into  a neurotic version—'my dad is so mean to me because I'm stupid and he loves my brother because he's smart.'

Give and Take

Dr. Laura Marshak, a psychologist and the author of Married With Special Needs Children: A Couples Guide to Staying Connected, thinks that kids can actually benefit from parents' differing approaches, though she makes a distinction between conflicting approaches that "stem from a lack of goodwill or respect in the couple's relationship"—a larger problem—and a little inconsistency. "Consistency," she says, "can be over-rated in its impact on a child given that they will need to operate in a world that is not entirely consistent. For example, they need to adapt to the style of different teachers in the school setting, grandparents, and extended family members."

So according to Marshak, within the context of a reasonably happy marriage or even an amicable divorce, some variation in parenting style can be beneficial to kids. The key is nurturing whatever relationship exists. As Dr. Ravitz says, couples "have to be open-minded about the possibility that the other person is right."

Or, on the other hand, it can be useful to to be willing to drop the issue, as illustrated by a moment between David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld in an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Letterman tells a story of a situation that arose with his young son, who said he couldn't go to his first baseball practice of the season because he hurt his hand in a go-cart mishap (Letterman had been co-conspirator on building the go-cart).

"What would you do you do in that situation?" Letterman asks Seinfeld.

Seinfeld's response: "I support whatever position my wife takes."

Letterman, shocked: "Because she knows more about parenting than you do?"

Seinfeld, deadpan: "The thing is, it doesn't matter what you do, but why have a fight with your wife?"

Published: September 3, 2013

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