Disagreements about parenting are not uncommon. Many couples struggle when each has different opinions about raising children. The unfortunate result can be repeated arguments and discord between you.
Worse, still, when you and your spouse are not getting along, your children can feel the tension as well.
In this post, I’ll help you understand the different parenting styles and how to help each other more deeply understand your parenting preferences. It is possible to become a true team, using both of your strengths to provide many benefits for your children.
The Roots of Parenting Styles
Before we talk about the four basic parenting styles, let’s look at how you may have chosen your parenting position. It’s important to note that these choices may not be conscious. And, when your preferences are not discussed openly with your partner, the misunderstandings and disagreements never seem to get resolved.
In my work with couples, I often find that each person’s way of parenting has its roots in their own childhoods — and in how they were parented. For example, if your parents were overly strict, you may wish to be more lenient with your own children. Or, if parents did not give us much attention because of work or other commitments, we may be very sensitive that our own children experience closeness and support.
Daniel Siegel, M.D, and coauthor Mary Hartzell, in their well-known book, “Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive” helps readers understand how our own experiences growing up can influence how we parent.
They write, “How you make sense of your own childhood experiences has a profound effect on how you parent your own children . . . Understanding more about yourself in a deeper way can help you build a more effective and enjoyable relationship with your children.”
Taking some time to think back to what was helpful — and what was less so — in how your parents raised you can be fruitful. You can become more self-aware and parent from more conscious, well-thought-out intentions.
Parenting Styles: How Couples Can Clash
As mentioned, when each partner approaches parenting with a different mindset, it becomes difficult to provide positive, consistent guidance to kids. Understanding more about parenting styles can be an important component of the discussion between the two of you.
Four parenting styles have been noted in the research:
- Authoritative parenting includes having daily structure and routines and clearly defined household rules. These parents may have high expectations of their kids, but also provide a supportive environment to help children meet those goals. There is open, two-way communication between parents and children. Parents talk with their children without criticism or judgment.
- Neglectful parenting, which is the most harmful, does not attend to children’s physical or emotional needs. Long periods away from home by the parents and not knowing what is happening in the child’s daily life are elements of this parenting style. Children do not develop trust with the parents and often have to cope with the parents’ unpredictable behavior or presence or absence in the home.
- Permissive parenting can be overly lenient, and rules are not clear or enforced consistently. Communication about problems is sparse, and permissive parents may not know how or be fearful of talking directly with their children about behavior shortcomings or about unfulfilled responsibilities.
- Authoritarian parenting is typically strict and can be demanding. These parents fail to communicate well with children, often resorting to expecting compliance “because I said so.” The result can lead to children who feel criticized, may develop low-self esteem and may even misbehave with the hope of receiving love and attention.
Not every parent falls neatly into any one category. We may impose strict rules regarding safety but also foster creativity and exploration when children engage in school work and hobbies.
The research continually shows that children thrive in homes where there is structure and in which they can count on their parents when needed. The authoritative approach is most helpful to children’s growth and healthy development.
It’s also important to note that some children will have special needs that require specific parenting approaches to help them be successful.
Parenting 'Stages' Can Bring Different Challenges
The arrival of the first baby causes a drop in marital satisfaction for two-thirds of couples. The demands of an infant for constant care add stress to the marriage. Unless agreed upon, resentments can develop related to how the work is shared. The husband can also feel left out as the wife creates a strong bond with the baby.
Enforcing household rules as children enter middle school and beyond can be a time when parenting style differences surface. Too strict? Too lenient? Maintaining consequences for behavioral transgressions?
Issues related to adult children also can cause friction between the couple. How much financial support should be provided? How much babysitting?
Taking Steps to Reach Greater Agreement
When couples have been arguing about parenting for some time, they may have formed a pattern, or what we call a “negative cycle” of interacting. As discussed on the page about Emotionally Focused Therapy, the negative cycle is arguments that include anger, criticism, blame, distancing and silence and withdrawal.
Over time, even the slightest mention of parenting issues can spark a negative cycle. However, couples can learn to tame the negative cycle by slowing down their reactions, and by taking time to talk about their differences. By understanding why each partner feels the way they do, you can both reveal your deeper concerns. Then, reaching agreements becomes much easier.
In Emotionally Focused therapy couples learn to have conversations in which they calmly are able to speak from their hearts, reveal their deeper concerns, hear each other fully and express what they need from each other in support and understanding.
A Conversation Toward a New Understanding
Here are some basic guidelines, using what you’ve learned so far in this post, for having a helpful (and loving) conversation about parenting.
First, set aside time when you both feel you can talk calmly. Eliminate distractions. A time when neither is tired, hungry or feeling the pressure of other stressors is most helpful.
- Help each other understand about how you were parented. What did your parents do that was most helpful to you? What wasn’t so helpful (or even hurtful)?
- What are your deepest fears about raising children? At times, how we parent is a reflection of what we are most afraid of that could happen to our children — not succeeding as adults, behavioral problems, teen pregnancy, use of alcohol and drugs. Important: Fear isn’t always logical. However, your feelings and concerns are true for you.
- Take a look at the parenting styles above. Can you pinpoint your most typical parenting style? Do you know why you lean in that direction?
- If you are able to discover more about yourselves and make some conscious decisions about specific parenting issues — great. Consider reading more about effective parenting approaches. You’ll find Dr. Siegel’s book, “The Whole-Brain Child,” can be helpful as well.
Resolving differences is challenging for most couples. Seeking professional help may be appropriate when the important issues are repeatedly leading to negative cycles and affecting the emotional security and connection in the marriage.
I invite you to reach out to me for further information and with specific questions about how counseling can be helpful.