Parents Must Present a United Front with Teens

Parenting doesn’t come with an instruction manual, and there’s not one “right” way to do it. However there is scientific evidence that supports one important parenting tip: regardless of your parenting style or your family values, children thrive in households where both parents present a united front.

What is a “united front”?

The definition of a “united front” is a group of people that join together to achieve a shared goal. Two parents both have the goal to raise respectful children who are successful in adulthood, so they must join together to effectively reach that goal. This means that parents should:

  • demonstrate consistency in house rules and discipline.
  • never badmouth the other parent to the children.
  • voice and show respect for each other.
  • support the other parent’s decision once made.

As is human nature, children’s main focus is often to get their own way. If there is not a united front among the parents, teens are smart enough to know they will likely be able to get their way if they divide and conquer.

What is “divide and conquer”?

“Divide and conquer” is the process of maintaining control in a situation by encouraging disagreement between two parties… and teens are masters at it.  Teens will often try to play one parent off another or encourage fighting, because the results are usually in the teen’s favor.

If a teen presents an issue and the parents are not in agreement, a fight ensues. Suddenly the issue isn’t about the teen’s topic at all; the ‘real’ problem is the other spouse. It isn’t about the teen failing to study, but that one parent is too involved in the teen’s academics. It isn’t about the sleepover the teen wants to go to tomorrow, but that one parent is too overprotective or too permissive. It’s not about sports practice being a priority, but that one parent ignores their own commitments to the family to do personal things.

When parents argue amongst themselves, they will often “give up” on the teen’s battle simply out of sheer exhaustion. The teen gets their way and learns that sowing discord between their parents is a successful strategy.

What are the effects on teens?

Parents arguing, bickering and disagreeing about how to raise the children affects a teenager’s mental health, regardless of whether the parents are married or divorced. Some teens with warring parents show inward disorders, such as depression or anxiety, while other teens display outward symptoms, such as hostility or aggression. When parents are not united in their parenting approach, children are more likely to feel insecure and stressed.

Why do parents disagree on parenting?

When we date as a couple, major issues often bring us together. Perhaps we have shared values, religious beliefs, or political affiliations. We think we agree on the most important matters, so everything will fall into place. Unfortunately, that may not be enough once kids enter the picture. Our own childhood experiences significantly impact our parenting styles. So the parent who grew up in a large family with over 4 children is much more likely to tolerate more chaos and expect some shouting and arguing. The parent who had a structured environment growing up might expect a consistent schedule where dinner is served at the same time each night and is a calm time to chat about the day. Neither parenting style is better than the other, but each dictates what we bring to our own children. Parents should take the time to learn about each other’s childhood experiences and discuss their expectations for their own family. When we understand each other, it’s easier to make accommodations and compromises.

How do parents present a united front?

Creating a united front for your children is not that difficult; it just takes a bit of planning. Think of all the energy you waste justifying your parenting decisions to each other, and instead apply that energy to becoming a team. Here are the steps to getting on the same page:

Become teammates. Recognize that there is more than one right way to do things. When you have a disagreement, instead of looking at the situation as ‘you versus your spouse,’ view it as ‘you and your spouse versus the problem.’ As parents, you are a team. If you ‘win’ an argument with your spouse, then someone in your family loses – either your spouse or your child. But if you as a team ‘win’ against the problem, then your entire family wins.

Demonstrate consistency in house rules and discipline. In private, away from your children, develop some general house rules and discipline you can agree on. It’s difficult to build a strong parenting strategy focused on differences, so instead start by listing the values you share. Develop rules that you both agree on that will provide a framework for your family.

Agree to fight fair. Mature conversations show your children how to deal with disagreements in a healthy manner. Agree ahead of time that you will try to keep all arguments out of the children’s view (agreeing to discuss it privately at a later time) and that your fights will avoid name-calling, personal attacks, shaming, blaming, screaming, or any physical aggression (such as pushing or throwing things).

Show respect for each other. Never badmouth the other parent in front of your children. Regardless of whether you’re still married, or separated, or divorced, show respect to the other parent. If you don’t, your child will become disrespectful of both of you. If your teen comes to you to complain about their father or mother, be alert not to get caught up in their manipulations. They’re hoping you’ll help them defy a rule or get out of what the other parent has asked them to do.

Make your child wait. Time and distance give you perspective, so don’t rush decisions unless they are absolutely urgent. Let your teen stew while you and your spouse have a calm conversation about the issue without your teen present. Teens are notorious for wanting you to respond to their requests immediately, but most of the time you will make a better decision when you have time to think about it and the opportunity to talk to your spouse before making a final decision. If your teen starts bringing you issues at the last minute to force a quick decision, make a rule that your answer will always be ‘no’ if you don’t have more than 12 hours to make the decision.

Support the other parent’s decision once made. Once you have worked things out with your spouse, it’s important that you support each other, even if you disagree with the final decision. Supporting each other means that, even if you and your spouse don’t see eye to eye, you will not undermine either the decision or your spouse’s authority by helping your child work around the policy, by knowingly failing to enforce it when your spouse is not around, or by suggesting to your child, implicitly or explicitly, that you are on their side but your spouse is not.

Agree to ground rules, when you can’t resolve a disagreement. When disagreements happen, stay focused on what the issue is, not who is right or wrong. When you and your spouse are just not able to agree on an issue, set up some factors to reconcile. Ideas include:

  • Decide on the basis of which parent the issue is more important to. If you don’t care all that much, it makes no sense to stand on principle. There will be times when the situation is reversed, and you’ll appreciate being given extra consideration when you feel more strongly than your spouse does.
  • Err on the side of caution. It is a lot easier for a lenient parent to live with a cautious decision than vice versa. It is also usually the safer bet as far as your child is concerned.
  • Decide on the basis of which parent is going to bear the brunt of the decision. If what you decide will affect your spouse’s daily routine but not yours, give your spouse more say.
  • When all else fails, decide on the basis of equity between the two of you. If virtually all of your recent decisions have favored one person’s view, it’s probably time to even things out a bit.

A unified front reduces stress and creates boundaries, expectations, and guidelines.

Can you present a united front even when you are parenting apart?

The importance of a united front remains even if parents are divorced or not living together. Obviously, divorced arrangements are more likely to have parental discord, but parents need to do their best to set aside their own animosity to do what’s best for the child. You can disagree on a lot of things while still compromising and creating a united front in your parenting duties.

Final Thoughts…

Creating a united front allows parents to enjoy a more peaceful home environment. There is less fighting, more cooperation, and less manipulation by teens. When parents are able work through their differences — big or small — they are role modeling positive adult behavior for their children. These moments will direct your teen’s values, expectations, attitudes, behaviors, and view of the world well into their future.

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