When Parents Aren't on the Same Page

sad girl listening to parents argue

Think back to the time before you became a parent: Maybe you talked with your partner about having children. Yet, your “parenting styles” may not have entered the conversation. Some clinical counselors say people get into relationships with belief systems that come from their own childhoods. When they become parents, they may end up on different pages for bringing up baby. Since each parent had different experiences growing up, it makes sense that they would have dissimilar ways of handling child rearing. It also doesn’t mean one method is better than the other for their child.

With great expectations, you delve into the parenting role. What happens if you’re not in sync with your partner when bringing up baby? What effect will this have on your growing child? What do you do when you're not on the same page?

Three Areas of Contention & How to Get on the Same Page

Here are recommendations in three key areas that will put parents on the same wavelength:

AREA 1: Discipline

In many households, it seems that there is the “softie parent” vs. “tough parent.” One typically balances out the other. At times, there is a role reversal, depending on the situation. For example, your child throws a temper tantrum and the “tough parent” may react with anger that seems “over the top.” (See JustMommies.com on better parenting.)

It’s important to take this conversation offline: out of earshot of your child and agree that there will not be yelling. Instead, talk about how to give structure for your child, so he or she knows the boundaries.

If the child goes beyond those boundaries, then you and your partner can agree on consequences (e.g. time-outs, removal of privileges, etc.).

Work as a team to enforce these. That way, the child won’t run to “softie” parent when he or she tries to push the boundaries. Plus, the child will feel more secure knowing the limits. Without structure, children also are not sure what is expected of them and may have difficulty learning self-control.

girl with parents arguing behind her

Try These Discipline Approaches:

Agree with your partner that you will help make one another “look good” in front of your children.

Don’t put your kids in the role of the adult. Many parents tend to complain to their kids about their partner. This makes life uncomfortable and stressful for kids who are not equipped to resolve their parents’ conflicts.

Try to resist the temptation to go along with your kids’ complaints. For example, don’t take sides when your child says, “Dad’s mean!” or “Mom doesn’t understand me.” Talk about such matters face-to-face with your spouse (or ex-spouse). And keep your children out of the middle.

If you don’t agree with your partner, be sure you do not undercut the consequences set by the other. When you undermine your partner’s efforts, this can result in a scenario in which your children end up disrespecting both parents.

While kids can cause stress in a marriage, here’s the flip-side: If the marriage itself is unhealthy, it is nearly impossible to be a “healthy parent.” If this is the situation, seek couples or family counseling.

AREA 2: Food choices

The topic of “proper nutrition” can cause a lot of friction in a family. Maybe one parent is into everything being organic, while the other doesn’t mind processed foods. The “fun” parent may undermine the other by offering junk food.

However, if the “fun-food” parent feels that a completely organic diet is too much (or outside their budget), a trade-off may be settling on a number of other “nutritious foods” that are acceptable. Also, settling on a number of “goodies” per week may be another compromise.

It’s a good practice to help your child develop healthy eating habits early, as this will bring lifetime advantages. Encourage your kids to think about their food choices and balance these with exercise.

More tips for bridging the gap on food choices:

Keep things upbeat – Don’t focus on “Can’t Do’s.” Instead, consider what kids “Can Do” by keeping food topics fun and positive. Everyone likes to be praised for certain behaviors, so tell them when you notice how their healthy food choices reflect well on their energy and well-being!

Get everyone moving - Take walks or ride bikes together. Play hide-and-seek or wiffleball. Your whole family can feel better from the exercise and good times together!

Encourage exercise that your child enjoys - Let your child try different sports and activities until he/she finds a favorite. Your child will stay with it longer that way. To encourage activity, cut back on video-games and computer/TV time, as these often lead to extra snacking, which boosts the risk for excess weight gain and heart disease. Limit screen time to two hours per day.

Pick healthy rewards - Don’t reward your child with TV time, video games, or candy for doing something good. Rather, find other ways to celebrate good behavior.

Enjoy family dinnertime - When your family has dinner together, it not only makes for good quality time, it can help everyone develop good eating habits. There is less chance for kids to pick up the wrong foods or participate in over-snacking!

The American Heart Association suggests the following:

Eat foods low in saturated fat, trans-fat, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars.

Choose a variety of foods to get enough carbohydrates, protein, and other nutrients.

Eat only enough calories to maintain a healthy weight for your height and build.

Serve whole-grain/high-fiber bread and cereals rather than refined grain products. Look for “whole grain” as the first ingredient on the food label and make at least half your grain servings are whole grain.

Serve a variety of fruits and vegetables daily, while limiting juice intake. Each meal should contain at least 1 fruit or vegetable.

For more resources, see “choose my plate” by the USDA.

sad boy listening to parents fighting

AREA 3: Sleep

Parents typically have different points of view on how to solve children’s' sleep issues. When in doubt, look to your child's pediatrician and the sleep experts.

Some popular authorities on children’s’ sleep issues include Richard Ferber, MD, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital Boston, and Harvey Karp, M.D., child development specialist and assistant professor of pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine. They have different philosophies, yet either can be effective. These doctors’ views range from letting baby “cry it out” at different stages, to methods for calming the crying infant to help him/her sleep longer.

Parents need to agree on what method they can both live with. Choose what works for you and your spouse. Here are some "sleep basics" that have worked for many families:

Sleep Tips

Encourage your baby to “self-soothe” by putting him to bed drowsy, enabling him to fall asleep independently.

Your child should sleep in the same room each night (cool, quiet, and dark without a TV or computer).

Develop daily daytime and bedtime schedules.

Create a consistent and enjoyable bedtime routine.

Set up a regular, sleep-friendly environment for your child.

Know the Facts to Reach Agreement on Sleep Issues:

Infants: By three to six months, many infants develop a regular sleep-wake cycle. Typically, infants sleep 9-12 hours at night, with multiple naps ranging from a half-hour up to two hours. Note that babies take fewer naps as they reach age one and that those who get used to their parents' help at bedtime often cry for assistance to fall back to sleep at night.

Toddlers (1-2 years): Sleep is very important for toddlers as it impacts their mental and physical development. Toddlers need 11-14 hours of sleep every day. When they are 18 months, their naps drop to one time a day, for one to three hours.

Preschoolers (3-5 years): Kids of preschool age sleep 11–13 hours each night and most don’t nap after age five. It’s common for this age to have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep at night. Their imaginations are developing and some have nighttime frights and even nightmares. Plus, sleepwalking can reach its peak during this timeframe.

School-aged kids (6-13 years): Children from 6-13 years of age need about 9-11 hours of sleep every night. This is challenging, as they have demands from schoolwork, sports or other activities. Plus, school-aged kids tend to get into computers and TV, and these can lead to problems falling asleep. Some experts say to turn off TVs and computers at least two hours before bedtime to improve sleep cycles.

Keep in mind that not only are parents' viewpoints different, but each child has different sleep needs. You must work together to figure out what is best for your child and be open to making tweaks along the way.