Parents in Conflict: Tips to Avoid Polarized Parenting

The more teens want to have freedom, the more routine and structure is necessary to help them navigate it with responsibility. Although few will likely admit to it, what adolescents need more than anything else is consistency and a sense of structure within the family. Unfortunately, the very nature of parenting can make this seemingly simple task difficult to accomplish with even the best-behaved teen, and nearly impossible when dealing with a defiant teen. “Defiant teens actually believe they are equal in authority to their parents,” says psychologist and author Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D. “When they don’t get their way, they often create drama and chaos to successfully divide and conquer the couple’s co-parenting attempts.”

As the demands of increasingly challenging schoolwork are combined with outside interests such as athletics, clubs, part-time work and a growing interest in romantic relationships, sometimes it becomes nearly impossible for parents to even keep track of their kids—let alone be able to deliver a consistent message when they actually are able to spend time with them. Help for parents of teens is often sought through various networks, including family counseling.

In hectic, stressful times it can sometimes become too easy for parents to fall into the trap of polarized parenting. However, the good news is there is help for parents of teens out there who are struggling.

Lead by Example

Instead of acting like a beacon of guiding light in the storm, parents can fall into the trap of jumping right into the life raft instead, and trying to ride out the storm right beside them.

While this may seem like a logical choice for a parent to make—after all, you have spent more than 10 years of the child’s life trying to protect them—it can actually cause more harm than good. Especially when you and your spouse have differing opinions on where everyone needs to sit and which direction to paddle.

While having different beliefs, opinions and goals is not uncommon in a marriage (it’s what likely attracted you both in the first place), it’s critical that adolescents see their parents consistently working together—making compromises and treating each other with mutual respect.

Find Common Ground

Ultimately, while parents may not always be on the same page, the overriding goal should always involve figuring out a way to get back toward the middle. Otherwise, a widening chasm between two parents will not only confuse and isolate a teenager who may feel “stuck” in the middle, it can also help perpetuate strong feelings of mistrust between the couple.

According to Harriet Lerner Ph.D., author of The Dance of Connection, “Not only does parental divisiveness weaken the marriage, it opens up parenting to adolescent manipulation. Most young people cannot resist exploiting disagreement between parents for freedom’s sake.”

Ask For Help

Indeed, these can be rough waters to navigate for any couple. Yet again, the secret to success revolves around communication; between each parent, as well as between both parents and child. If necessary, a trained marriage and family therapist can create an atmosphere and provide the tools to make these conversations more productive through family counseling. Therapists at Pacific Quest work not only with teens, but with their parents as well, to promote wellness in the entire familial unit. By creating a program that specializes in providing help for parents of teens who are experiencing communication issues, Pacific Quest is able to better understand and heal any fractured relationships.

The Last Word: Keep Things in Perspective

Remember, the ultimate purpose here is to help you and your partner create a positive atmosphere for your teen to develop not only a clearer sense of who they are, but also an honest (and ideally positive) sense of who their parents are, separately and together.

This way, when the time comes, they’ll be ready, willing and able, to not only make their own way in the world, but to also be better prepared to find and hold onto someone to share their future with down the line.


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