THE BLOG
07/28/2014 02:05 pm ET | Updated Sep 27, 2014

Teens Caught in the Web of Parents' Conflicts

"How can they do this to me? Do you know how humiliating this is in front of my friends?"
"Why should I try when they don't care about how I feel?"
"They tell me to follow rules and be respectful; what about them?"

The easy living of summer is challenged when children and teens become entangled in their parents' conflict and competition. Parents compete to be considered the best parent and then the best interests of their children go by the wayside.

Parents of teens know that there will be tense times between them and their children with children trying to wield their newly-forming independence, declaring their identity separate and especially apart from their parents. Part of this tug of war is healthy for both adolescents and for parents. Teens using their newly-developing abstract thinking skills question parental authority they never did in the past; parents learn to become more flexible and carefully give their children more of a say in decision making and independence in their lives. There is a certain reality however, that needs to be considered: Teens still need boundaries, rules and consequences to contain and restrain their impulsive behavior and not quite mature, decision making. Their evaluation of choices may involve too much risk-taking.

One parent leaves for the weekend; the teen has no accountability and is told to "behave and don't tell your other parent I won't be here." Another parent tells a teen that it is fine to go to another state with his teen friend without any supervision and without checking with the co-parent. Another typical scenario in families where parents don't communicate about their children is the situation where a teen isn't doing well in school and one parent refuses special help for the child. The results in real life can be extremely dangerous for the teens. The teen in the first case had a party that went out of control; the police were called. The teen in the second example wound up in the hospital due to a car accident. The teen in the last example became extremely frustrated in not being able to succeed and gave up.

If parents, regardless of custody determination are going to be involved, and if there are two responsible, loving parents, it is imperative that children, regardless of age, not be put in the middle, not be given the opportunity to learn to manipulate parents and play one parent against the other. Equally important, children need to be accountable regardless of whose home they are in at the time.

While it is very challenging for parents who are in conflict and don't like or trust each other to work together, here are several tips that might help parents to rise above their anger:

1. This is not about you; it is about your child. You are protecting your child's well being by communicating with your co-parent about your child. 2. Providing guidance, appropriate discipline and requiring respectful behavior, provides security to children. "I know my 'real' parent," a teen said. "My parent is the one who makes me do my homework, take a shower and brush my teeth." 3. While teens may not thank you for rules and consequences short-term, you will have a better relationship long-term. 4. Your genuine modeling of caring will go a long way. Teens "use" their parents; they get what they can and often comment that they know what they are doing by "taking" from a parent they don't respect. 5. Learn to communicate with a co parent:
  • communicate at least once a week for a few minutes.
  • agree to focus on your child and discuss your child in very specific ways
  • agree on a child focused agenda
6. Discuss your child's well-being, learning opportunities, strengths and weaknesses, discipline. 7. Model constructive co-parenting to your teen and where possible, convey that you will both be communicating about rules and consequences and other issues. 8. Follow the high road and rules of civility. None of us is beneath demonstrating respect.

It is true that parents who live in the same home also have disagreements and their children also try to play one parent against the other. However, this dynamic is usually disclosed sooner with less risk of the teen "using' the gap when both parents reside in the same home.

I have seen parents who were declared enemies come together under life threatening circumstances related to their children. Teens have enough to contend with in their lives; they need to look back at their parents and be reassured that you are both there for them.

There are also many single parents without that "other parent." There are often more pressures because you are the sole parent and don't have the support of another parent. We have seen single parents who have the support of their own parents and siblings, coaches, counselors and the faith community as well as other parents may become that "second" parent at times. We all need and deserve support; after all, parenting is the most difficult and the most rewarding job.