June 22, 2022
Same Page Parenting
By Dr Kathy Weston
Once upon a time, many years ago, as part of some training I was doing on couples therapy, I came across a case study scenario, shared by a colleague, that I have never forgotten. It featured two parents with a young daughter, who they described as ‘aggressive and very naughty’. In fact, she had taken her shoes and thrown them at her parents in a 'fit of rage’; an incident which made them wonder if she might need some sort of psychological help.
The couple were invited to discuss their parenting styles; a therapeutic interview we were allowed to re-watch as part of our training. Their parenting style, family rules and approaches to raising their daughter were explored. It turned out that they agreed on very little and had never established behavioural rules at home, nor applied any sort of consistency to what happened when those rules were breached. Mum was quite laissez-faire when it came to her parenting style (“I let her do what she wants to do most of the time”). Dad described himself as authoritarian (“pretty strict and ‘shouty’”). The result was a child who had no idea what was coming next, nor any idea how to manage the feelings of frustration that came from being ‘stuck in the middle’ of two distinct parenting philosophies.
An alternative explanation for the child’s so-called ‘naughty’ behaviour began to emerge. They had been arguing over how she should pack her school bag for a school trip. One was telling her one thing and the other parent was saying the exact opposite. This was something which they both said, occurred a lot.
It emerged that perhaps their daughter’s shoe-throwing reflected her exasperation and fatigue with their indecision and mutual irritation with one another. She was like an employee caught between two bosses who couldn’t make their minds up about her job role! Whilst throwing shoes can never be condoned, perhaps her behaviour was indicative and reflective of struggles within wider family life? She was labelled as ‘the problem’ within the wider family structure, when the tension between her parents was clearly the big elephant in the room. The world can feel unpredictable and uncertain when those parents continually disagree on the basics. Living in a situation where the goal posts keep moving is understandably anxiety-inducing and demotivating.
It is intuitive but also evidenced by the research on parenting, that establishing a ‘united front’, whether we live together or apart, can create the sort of domestic climate conducive to cultivating a strong sense of self and self-worth in children. At the heart of this particular scenario were two parents at odds with one another, who realised they needed to learn to communicate better, establish an approach that they could both invest in, and agree on a set of behavioural boundaries that would allow their child to flourish. As the dad insightfully recognised toward the end of the interview with the therapist, with some sadness: “I think she is just reacting to the fact we don’t get along”.
Whilst a discussion about parenting styles can help to kick start broad conversations about the way we parent, research suggests it can be more fruitful to take a more nuanced approach and consider each other’s strengths as a starting point before moving on to identify areas of consensus.
This point was made to me by developmental psychologist Dr Rory Devine (University of Birmingham), who said that we should be less concerned with ‘parenting styles’, or any societal idea that there may be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parents, and focus more on weaknesses and strengths within individuals’ parenting behaviours and responses. Taking this idea into the practical sphere, parents might start looking at what they admire about their co-parent (where relevant) and identify ‘things that work well’ in their family life. Parental sensitivity is also incredibly important. This is where parents detect their child’s signals and needs and are able to respond sensitively to them. The parents described above were very focused on the battle between them and may have missed more subtle cues as to how their child was responding early on. Clearly, her frustration must have been building and her behaviour gently deteriorating over time.
Evidence suggests that most parents could make small, simple changes which would increase the quality of their interactions with their children. Making time to spend with them is an obvious way to nurture connection. Think time off phones, ‘hanging out’, being led by the child in terms of how to play together and not being too directive or prescriptive when it comes to the actual activity. We know from research by Professor Claire Hughes, an expert on family life based at the University of Cambridge, that parents who partake in “autonomy support” within play interactions, can support children’s problem-solving skills and self-esteem. In practical terms, this means that, if you like to be very ‘hands on’ when playing with your child, consider pulling back a little and letting them make a few mistakes or struggle through the moment.
Try to inject warmth, fun, laughter into these precious play moments. Remember that our presence and positive attention are powerful and craved by our children. As Dr Rory Devine points out, it is ‘the dance between parent and child that matters”. Children thrive when we are attuned and paying attention to their facial expressions, gestures and the quality of conversation that is being exchanged. Emeritus Professor Michael Lamb (University of Cambridge), reminds us to always be as authentic as possible in our interactions with our children. Play with your child in ways that feel comfortable and enjoyable to you.
Don’t take all this to imply that quality time with your children necessarily means doing ‘something special’. Some of the richest conversations and moments happen in the most mundane of situations. For example, simply sitting side by side in a car whilst driving to football practice (as opposed to face to face) can lead to enlightening and meaningful chats.
When parenting is reduced to telling children off, persistent nagging or an ideological tug of war between parents, it is easy to understand why children’s self-worth and levels of motivation might begin to take a hit.
How we argue or resolve disagreements about parenting (or anything else) can also have a profound impact on our children. The litmus test is: would you be happy with your children behaving the way you do during an argument? When we argue, whatever approach we exhibit is one that our children may well absorb and adopt as their own. So, if we are able to avoid an immediate launch into battle mode, we can de-escalate the drama and attempt to model a constructive approach. Striving to listen, empathise with the other person’s position and attempting to maintain our cool (not always easy) is something that we can all aim for.
If there are areas of family life where you simply don’t share parental consensus, why not allocate half an hour to sit down together and work through them? Pick one topic where you disagree and allow each person ten minutes of uninterrupted talking time to describe their feelings and perspective. Listen to each other carefully, consider your different thoughts and parenting techniques and praise any positives in your co-parent’s approach. Then, try to work out where they overlap and what might be a more cohesive approach on this issue in the future. Remember that consistent parenting, with an agreed set of behavioural boundaries, will help your child to flourish. Being on the same page is something that we should all strive to achieve.
If you are worried about how your child feels about any aspect of family life, why not inject a sense of democracy and ask for their feedback on what things might be improved at home, as well as what things work? How do you feel about family life at the moment? What things do you enjoy? What are your favourite things about our home? What upsets or annoys you? If you could change one thing, what would it be? Taking time to step back and actively listen to those around us is important. Encouraging all family members to take part in this kind of audit will hopefully provide some impetus for meaningful change, as well as a renewed appreciation for all the positives.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If you belong to a Tooled Up school and you’d like some help with auditing your parenting behaviours, we’ve created a brand new template designed to spark conversation and maybe inspire a new, more cohesive, response.
If you are looking for advice on how to kickstart these tricky chats about the good and the bad in family life, check out our top ten tips on making family conversation more productive. We’ve also created a template to use before and during family audit meetings. If you have younger children, our My Family Life activity is a great way to prompt reflections on the positives of everyday life and the things that could be improved. Sometimes, prospective chats like this can leave us feeling nervous. If this sounds familiar, take a look at our conversation model, which can be applied to any situation. You might also like to listen to our recent podcast with PhD student Mishika Mehrotra on the importance of dinnertime conversation to children’s mental health, wellbeing, self-esteem and academic development!
If you’ve got any more questions you’d like answering on either parenting or mental health, make sure that you book your place on our Q&A webinar with me, Dr Weston and psychiatrist, Dr Anna Conway Morris. You can ask us anything you like!
Finally, one last reminder for any parents with children moving from primary to secondary settings in September. It’s not too late to join me tonight for a live webinar on effectively managing this important transition. Book your free place now!