Polarized Parenting Hurts Everyone

“She makes a different dinner for each kid.”
“He walks into the house and starts criticizing the children.”
“She threatens a punishment and then forgets about it.”
“He gets too angry; The children are afraid of him.”
“She lets them get away with too much.”
“He punishes them too much.”
“She doesn’t support me and the kids know it.”
“His father was never around; He doesn’t know what to do.”

These are among the most common statements that parents make in my office. It reflects natural differences gone bad. Typically parents are not the same in the way that they deal with their children. Personality and gender differences can contribute to very different patterns of parenting. (Although the gender roles described above can just as easily be reversed.) The essence of the difference is the conflict between being too easy versus being too hard on the children. The main problem is not the existence of differences. Instead, it is when these differences become polarized as each parent responds to the other and exaggerates their own style. It ends up with neither parent really being the type of parent they want to be and it becomes a key factor in marital conflict. Wives lose respect for and become angry at husbands who appear to be mean to their children. Husbands lose respect for and become angry at wives who appear to not support their roles as fathers.

In a healthy marriage, parents talk about parenting, try to understand and support differences in their styles, and, as their relationship grows more intimate over the years, there is a convergence that takes place. They become more like each other, sharing interests and ways of doing things that creates a less-conflicted, more accommodating relationship. They resolve issues rather than letting them fester. They retain, even increase, the wish to please the other. But, when intimacy has been decreasing, communication has lessened, then a divergence takes place instead. The differences become exaggerated. The couple becomes more rigid instead of more flexible. This is especially true with their parenting styles.

The mother perceives her husband as being too critical and mean. So, consciously or subconsciously, she becomes even more forgiving, less critical, and tries to do more for and with the children to ease her perception of the pain their father is causing the children. She may begin to give in to more of their wishes regarding foods, TV time, bedtime, and desired purchases. The father perceives this “softness” as harmful to his children — not preparing them for the harshness of the “real world” — and as turning the children against him, making him the mean parent. In response to this, the father feels he must be even more diligent in being tough on the children to help toughen them. The mother responds to this by becoming even less punitive. The father more so. On and on it spirals. This is the polarization process. Each parent is being pushed out to more extreme positions in response to the other.

The children suffer in two ways. They recognize the lack of coordination between their parents and play one off the other to try to get away with more. To the extent that they are successful, their anxiety level increases, for they correctly sense that their parents are not sufficiently in charge of the family and that frightens them. Their behavior worsens, which puts even more stress on the weak parenting system. The second source of harm to the children is the inevitable increase in conflict between the parents. This also frightens the children. They often witness angry confrontations between their parents that immediately brings divorce to their minds. Children will respond differently, according to their personalities, ranging from feeling guilty (“I’m causing the problem.”) and trying to fix it by being the “perfect child” to sadness (withdrawal; acting out more in boys or teens of both sexes).

If we can address this problem before it becomes encased in a more pervasive marital discord, then it really isn’t that hard to fix. First, each parent must acknowledge, take ownership of, their inappropriately exaggerated behavior. Second, each parent must validate that what the other is doing is coming from the same place — a desire for their children to grow up and be happy and successful adults. In other words, they each love their children very much, even if their behavior may not make that apparent. Then the parents must begin to move towards each other in the way they are dealing with the children. Father must become less task-oriented and critical. He needs to focus more on building a positive relationship with his children and to realize that will form the key foundation for his children being successful in life. Mother must work on follow-through and consistency regarding rules and discipline. She needs to be a bit more task-oriented and a little less focused on the children’s feelings. She needs to realize that coping with pain, rather than being protected from it, is one of the main building blocks of self-esteem and creates the resiliency children will need in later life.

As mom and dad become more aligned as parents, their marriage will improve. Sometimes I think that this, above all else, is the most important thing they can do for their children.