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Dr. Gail Gross Headshot

When Parenting Styles Clash

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You've grounded your child, taking away television privileges. You come back home from running errands, only to find your partner and your child watching television. "Dad said I could!" exclaims your child. "You're being unfair," says your partner, in front of your child. "What she or he did was no big deal and I wouldn't have handled the situation that way."

What is "no big deal" to one parent, may be a big deal to the other. But nevertheless, it is never appropriate to sabotage another parent's discipline in front of your child. And even though, as a child you said that you would never parent like your parent, you and your mate bring to your marriage those very parenting roles that you both experienced, good or bad. These are the patterns that you know how to do that make up your comfort zone. And by the way, because you didn't turn out so badly you reach for this parenting style when you become a parent.

We do what we know

You instinctively parent your children the way you were parented: you've been brought up one way, and your partner another. This truth inevitably leads to differences in both the expectations and the methods of parenting. You bring to your marriage your family of origin and the way your parents parented you. And even if you didn't like a lot of what your parents did, you reach for what you know.

In our minds, we feel justified: you've never been a parent before so you project onto your new family all of the feelings and values from your home. After all, that is who you are and that is what you bring to your marriage. So, when you look down that long tunnel of parenting options you pull out the familiar. Our expectations often hit a wall, called The Other Parent, and we don't understand why our partner can't see things our way. Conflict in child rearing not only can cause chaos in your marriage but is also one of the greatest causes for divorce.

What to do if you and your partner's parenting styles clash:

1. Communicate regularly and openly with your partner. Communication is the key to everything.

2. Know your child. Different children require different parenting styles, at different times. For example, you would discipline a shy child much differently than you would an aggressive child.

3. Educate yourself. Make sure you are fully aware of what is going on with your children in this day and age rather than just guessing or basing your knowledge on your own childhood experience. Talk with other parents, and know what your children's peer groups are doing.

4. Engage in the empathic process. Set up neutral space, such as the kitchen, for you and your mate to communicate regularly about family problems. The kitchen is the heart of the house where alchemy happens. Here, you're creating new traditions and new education styles, together, that fit your new family. Be honest and do not get defensive when your mate is speaking. This gives you chance to reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly of your own upbringing, and your partner has chance to do the same.

5. Come up with a parenting plan that will work for your family and kind of children you have. You bring to the plan one parenting item that is of utmost importance to you and is non-negotiable, and your partner does the same. Then, work together to negotiate the rest until you have a new plan that reflects your combined parenting styles.

6. Once you have a combined parenting plan, stick with it. Be consistent. Then kids know what to expect and they know what the consequences will be. Once you've settled what you're willing to do in merging two different families of origin, then you sit down with your kids and verbally lay out the rules, together. By investing your children in the discipline process, they will be more likely to follow the rules that they have taken part in creating.

7. Always present a united front before your children. Do not disagree with each other or question each other's parenting decision in front of your children; if you disagree, have that conversation with your partner outside of earshot of your children. United you stand, divided you fall.

8. Seek help. If communication breaks down -- for example, if you or your mate sabotage one another in front of your children -- you may need to explore the reasons behind your behavior. Perhaps, anger and dysfunction are being projected in your parenting roles. Then it's time to see a therapist. Seek professional help to bring you and your partner back to a middle ground where you can learn to communicate and support each other.