When Parents Disagree About Their Adolescent

Managing parental disagreement is more important with an adolescent.

Posted Oct 17, 2011

It's easy for parents to get crossways about their adolescent when they perceive teenage conduct or wants in contrasting ways and differ about what the best response should be.

So one parent thinks they should let the young teenager go to the concert and the other parent thinks they should just say ‘no.' The first parent has always been a risk taker, the second parent more inclined to consider safety first.

Because parents are different people, they will naturally approach parenting differently, those differences in constant play between them, disagreement one expression of this play.

The problem of parental disagreement starts from the child's birth when diverging ideas about child rearing unexpectedly arise. For example, when the infant is whimpering in the other room, they can have opposing beliefs about how to react. Says one, "We need to pick her up and provide comfort right away." Says the other, "Do that and you'll spoil her; she needs to get herself back to sleep." What's going on?

In this case, there is a value difference they didn't know they had until now. One parent believes providing security is a priority; the other parent believes training in self-reliance should start early. Who's right? They both are, because each possesses a significant piece of the parenting puzzle they bring to child raising. Security and self-reliance are both important to encourage in a growing child.

Every marriage is like this, a cross cultural union between two people from different family backgrounds. In addition, sex role development and gender training also sets them apart.

As father, one parent will be influenced by his own male training growing up and this may bias his perception and approach to a son and daughter. So maybe he believes competing hard and performing well is what matters most.

As mother, the other parent will be influenced her own female training growing up and that may bias her perception and approach to a daughter and son. So maybe she believes forming and nurturing lasting relationships with friends is what matters most.

This natural diversity between them needs to be treated as a source of richness and not divisiveness, as a source of wisdom and not a cause for argument.

Value differences in parenting are not to be quarreled about, they are to be respected. Thus parents should not be in the business of questioning or criticizing each other's child raising values. Rather, they need to translate their value position into what each wants to have happen and then negotiate those wants to create a decision both can support, leaving the value difference between them intact.

So, in the case of the fussing infant, parents reach a compromise: delay but not denial. They decide to wait five minutes, and if the child doesn't stop whimpering they will pick her up.

What is the right parenting decision? That is hard to determine since short term benefits (protection in the present, for example) can have long term costs (risk aversion in the future, for example.)

There is rarely the luxury of knowing what decision is best because parenting is not a science based on verifiable principles of child-raising. It is a well-intentioned process of decision making, problem solving one issue to the next being what most parents try their best to do. Consulting "parenting experts" only provides more food for thought, not certainty about what is proven and true.

Parenthood is full of surprises. The married couple didn't know they had child raising differences when they were a childless twosome. Relatively speaking, it was simple sharing individual lives as partners. But role changes change and complicate relationships.

When they transition into becoming parents together, wife becomes mother and husband becomes father. Neither has inhabited or known the other in that role before. In addition, they haven't had any experience or given much thought to how they want to define and operate a family of their own.

So during the years when raising young children (up to about age 9), they are defining their respective parental roles and developing the practices of family. As for the kids, for the most part they accept the parental roles and family structure they are given, roles and structure on which parents mostly agree.

Come the onset of adolescence (beginning around ages 9 - 13), however, when the five developmental engines that drive young people toward more individuality and independence -- separation, expansion, differentiation, opposition, and responsibility - begin to fire (see 9/13/11 blog), their parenting is challenged in ways it was not before.

In this process, how to manage their teenager's freedom loving conduct usually creates more disagreement between parents. For example, just consider a few of the either/or decisions parents must make.

Should they notice or ignore? Should they confront or let go? Should they accept or question? Should they permit or forbid? Should they talk to or punish? Should they believe or distrust? Should they help or stay hands off? Should they say something or nothing? Should they treat it seriously or lightly? Should they stick to their word or change their mind? The power of these parental questions is that they provoke differences of opinion.

As the adolescent pushes for more risky behavior, the seriousness of parenting decisions increases. Parents have to be able to reach agreement. If they can't, their indecision will rule or from their disagreement a double message will be sent. In either case the teenager is likely to exploit parental uncertainty or disunity for freedom's sake.

This is not to say that parents must operate exactly the same. In fact, there is an important distinction to be made between differences in parental beliefs which are authentic, and differences in parental decision making which are counterproductive.

Because of the individuality of each parent, they will each have their own way of communicating and relating to their adolescent, and that needs to be accepted by them both. So for example, one parent may be more inclined to jump in uninvited with an opinion while the other parent is more inclined to withhold advice unless requested.

About the first parent, the teenager says, "I always know where my Mom stands and what she thinks." About the second parent, the teenager says, "I can always get a good listen from my Dad and some suggestions if I ask." Both parents are valued and valuable, but each in a different way.

Both the parents' view of the adolescent and parents' relationship to the adolescent are going to be somewhat different, and that is to be expected and okay. When it comes to parental decisions about the adolescent, however, parents do need to arrive in the same place. A shared front both unifies parents and creates stability for the teenager.

As for the process of parental disagreement about what response or decision to make, they need to appreciate several benefits that this discord can bring.

PARENTAL DISAGREEMENT CAN BE EXPANSIVE. By creating two different ways of looking at the same issue or problem, it can increase parental understanding. The perspectives of two can be "smarter" (broader, more adequate) than the bias of one.

"I know you think her lack of motivation at school comes from being mad at the move, and that we have to be firm about her accepting what she doesn't like. But I think what may also be going on is that she is sad and misses her old friends. Maybe we need to do something to help her with that."

PARENTAL DISAGREEMENT CAN BE CORRECTIVE. Each parent can be a helpful observer of the other's parenting, offering suggestions when the other gets stuck in an unproductive interaction.

"Maybe you're too hard on him. Constant criticism isn't going to motivate him to do better. He'll only feel hurt and angry and act worse. Give him some positive recognition for all that he is doing well."

"Maybe you should stop fighting to control her all the time. The more you try to micromanage her, the more she's going to fight you back. Give her some room to make her own choices."

PARENTAL DISAGREEMENT CAN BE STRENGTHENING. By sharing and understanding divergent points of view and by reaching a mutually acceptable decision, intimacy in the relationship is enhanced. Each parent comes to better know and be better known by the other when they forge agreement out of disagreement and further unify the marriage.

"I didn't fully appreciate how we believed so differently about this, and I feel closer now having reached a choice we both can support."

Children, particularly adolescents, give parents a lot to disagree about. How parents manage this disagreement is only secondarily about the welfare of the child. Primarily it is about their partnership and how by marrying on a difficult decision they can further strengthen the marriage they have made.

A healthy parental partnership needs disagreement because adequate parental separation contributes to the support of a marriage. Or, as it has been more wisely put by poet Kahil Gibran: "The pillars of the temple stand apart."

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.)  Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Parents, adolescents, and the nature of conflict