My partner and I disagree on what to do when our child has very challenging behaviours like threatening us, throwing things and shouting. Dealing with the behaviour is bad enough. On top of that I am feeling exhausted and worn down because my partner and I disagree on the best way to discipline. The main problem I have is that I think we need to address the problem my child has with managing their emotions and my partner thinks this is the sure way to encourage more of the undesirable behaviour. How can we get on the same page ? It’s hard not to disagree on basic discipline.

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When parents disagree about how to manage poor behaviour, it causes a lot of friction at home. Every parent feels like they have the right approach and the high emotion makes it more likely we are going to disagree. The first step in any explosive situation with emotions running high, is to take time to calm down. Let the dust settle before taking any action. Parents are much more likely to have a high quality conversation when they are calmer.

Parents often disagree about low level parenting issues

Is it realistic or desirable for parents to always agree? I don’t believe that this is possible as we all inherit a unique parenting style based on our own upbringing and experiences. It’s normal for parents to have a difference of opinion on all sorts of things. Can kids while sitting on the chair on their knees or do they have to sit on their behind? What about leaning back on the chair – is this allowed? Can the bed stay unmade all day or do they have to do it first thing in the morning? Parents tell me that they disagree about everyday parenting issues so why wouldn’t they disagree on the bigger ones?

Parents spend a great deal of family life getting kids into good habits this is all about mornings, mealtimes and bedtimes. These are the routines we are preoccupied with until our kids leave home. Parents tend to show more flexibility about mundane daily tasks. So why is it we get so upset when we have big differences about how to manage a child who has strong reactions and can’t regulate their emotions?

Bigger problems cause a stronger reaction

The child who is having an explosive outburst is exactly the same as one who can’t organise their PE gear. Both lack skills which they need a calm, alert and focused adult to help them with. Parents can find it hard to look at the problem as one where the child needs to learn new skills and instead find themselves being triggered into an unhelpful and explosive response. We all know this is like adding oxygen to the flames. The dynamic between parents adds another level of complexity. What do we do when our child lashes out? It comes down to the way we have observed problems being solved in our our homes and the parenting style we have absorbed in the past.

Mostly we don’t spend time talking about how to solve problems until they are happening right under our nose. If this is pattern which sounds familiar to you, you are not alone; parents disagree and their positions become entrenched. Before we know it we can feel worn down and exhausted. We are confronted with the same patterns, again and again. Child acts out, parent reacts strongly, sometimes to bitterly regret what they have done or said. We want to deal with it our way and our partner says, no, I want it my way, and this makes us feel unsupported. A parent who feels unsupported is a stressed parent. It’s even harder to step back and work out what is going on and for the adults let alone our children to calm down.

Our different parenting style becomes more obvious when we are stressed

Many parents were raised with strict parents and find that this approach is appealing because strict parents rely on clear rules and boundaries. These parents are fond of getting kids to sign contracts. The problem is that we can’t solve relationship issues with contracts unless you are ok with coercion and using your power over other people. The strict parents also fails to teach kids properly. What happens when the child can’t do what is asked because of a lack of skills or the expectation we have is unrealistic? Usually this means not enough has been done to teach the child and the contract is the default position strict parents use punitively to coerce and control. Strict parents become even stricter when the pressure is on. Permissive ones turn into a strict parents when they are pushed too far. Which parenting style is going to be best for a child who is acting out?

Parenting researchers have talked for a long time about the best parenting style to support children – children need firm limits and big empathy. This is the authoritative parenting style. Research tells us that it’s more important to have at least one authoritative parent rather than parents who agree. Anne Fletcher and colleagues asked this question in a study of American high school students. They found that teens were generally better off having at least one authoritative parent – even if the other parent was permissive or authoritarian (Fletcher et al 1999).

What is happening when a child has challenging behaviour?

A child who is challenging, shouting and making threats is not having a good time and is experiencing very negative emotions. How do we feel when we are in the midst of negative and overwhelming feelings? Our adult brains have trouble coping with this. It’s even harder for an immature brain which is still developing. The child who is lashing out does not need punishment, they need understanding from us as the calm, alert and focused adults. We are the safe people who can give them the safety and connection to help them find ways to communicate their needs without lashing out.

Think about how things are from our child’s point of view

At this stage it’s a good idea to do a little perspective taking. When we think about what it’s like for the child, that child is faced with a physically larger adult who talks in a deeper voice, often a raised one when it’s a high stress time. Our child can feel threatened, unsupported and wrong for having their feelings. When an adult adds strong words and actions this will only add more pressure for our child.  Pointing our that what they are doing is wrong and telling them about our rules is a way of adding even more stress and it’s not the way to changing the behaviour. What will help a child in this situation depends on what sort of parenting styles the parents adopt in the high stress moment.

The most important message our child needs to hear from us as an authoritative parent

The authoritative parent communicates a vital message. We are the parent who knows them best and who is their safe person. We are not afraid of challenging behaviour. We need to let our child know that we can handle it without reacting to them in their worst moments. When there are strong negative emotions going on we can handle it, it goes with the territory of being that big-hearted and firm parent. We don’t take it personally.

It takes courage to be strong and firm and loving in the face of shouting, hitting and lashing out and parents who do this are sending a strong message “I have your back, you are allowed to feel these feelings and I can help you get through this.” The more often the cycle of meeting our child where they are and helping them to manage their emotions happens, the stronger the relationship becomes. Keeping kids strongly connected, even when they are acting out, is the main way to help them develop emotional resilience.

Working on the united front takes time and patience

When you find yourself in a pattern and you disagree with your partner it can also help to do an autopsy on what has occurred. Work out what is it you disagree about and how you can both help your child with their situation. Based on the research into parenting styles it makes sense to look for ways to increase influence, rather than reacting to the circumstance with “tough love” be patient and work on ways to move towards that authoritative style, one step at a time.

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