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When Mom and Dad Clash Over How to Raise Kids

Photograph by Twenty20

Sometimes parents have completely different styles of parenting. For quite some time, I worked with a family that struggled with this very issue. Mom and Dad couldn't agree on anything. Every time mom attempted to set a limit, Dad undermined her and made a joke of it. Every time Dad tried to use empathy to work through something difficult, Mom retorted with sarcasm.

When their son was little, this he said/she said style of parenting was confusing. Limits were constantly redrawn, and the kid didn't really understand the family expectations. He took to clowning around to break the tension. While this worked at home and brought everyone back to the same page, it became a problem at school. As he got older, he used the opposite styles to his advantage. He knew how to get what he wanted from each one of them, and he wasn't afraid to start an argument between the two if it meant he could shift the focus.

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While this was an extreme case of parenting opposites, many parents do have different styles. Some are more authoritative while others are highly permissive. Some consider themselves playful parents, which leaves others to do the heavy lifting … or so it seems.

While no two people are exactly the same, and different styles can actually work together for the betterment of the family, it does take work. When parents are on the same page, they parent with confidence and consistency. When parents are at odds, it can negatively impact the whole family.

There's a big difference between constantly fixing what's wrong and working to build upon what's right.

Kelly Flannigan Bos, MSW, family therapist and relationship expert, helps parents find ways to work together, even when they have very different ideas about parenting. "When parents learn from each other's differences and try to find the best approach for the family," explains Bos, "They model the importance of working through differences, and they learn to challenge long-held beliefs." In other words, when we learn to work together, we actually learn from one another.

But how can parents begin working together when they've been at odds for quite some time? Bos has a few tips to help get you started:

1. Establish a weekly meeting

I find that one of the biggest problems is lack of communication. When parents have opposite styles they either argue about parenting regularly or they attempt to avoid all discussions about parenting, which results in increased resentment.

"Weekly meetings are not just about compromise," cautions Bos, "but a time to sit down and talk about what's working and what's not." Instead of focusing on my way vs. your way, take a look at what's happening with the family each week and go from there.

Highly sensitive kids fall apart when parents yell. Introverted kids need plenty of downtime. Extroverted kids need help learning how to express their feelings.

2. Be positive

When parents have opposite styles, there is a tendency to highlight the failures. In an effort to find one "best" style, sometimes parents get fixated on what's wrong.

I always encourage parents to talk about the positives. Parenting is never easy, and there will always be difficult moments to work through along the way. But there are also tons of wonderful moments. When we shift our thinking to look for what's right in the family, we can build on that.

There's a big difference between constantly fixing what's wrong and working to build upon what's right. When parents take a positive approach together, they experience less stress and greater confidence in their decisions.

3. Parent the kids you have

All too often, parents sit on my couch and give me a blueprint of how they want to parent their kids and how they think their kids should respond. This is a mistake. Here's the deal: You can't possibly know what your kids really need until you get to know your kid, and that requires some trial and error.

Highly sensitive kids fall apart when parents yell. Introverted kids need plenty of downtime. Extroverted kids need help learning how to express their feelings. All kids need to learn how to regulate their emotions.

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It's great to have an idea of how you want things to go, and the sooner parents talk about parenting styles and goals, the better. But there is always an element of surprise when it comes to parenting.

Flexibility, both with your kids and your parenting partner, makes for a smoother ride through the ups and downs of this parenting gig. That much I can promise.

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