Communication is key in co-parenting, discipline


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Q: My husband and I have different parenting styles. This is causing problems with our two middle-school-aged sons because they see us reacting differently when situations arise. My husband wants the rules to be black and white, with no leniency. I think parents should approach each situation independently and then discuss consequences. What is the best approach?

A: It is easy to associate roles among parents such as “good cop and bad cop” or consoler and discipliner. These roles can be dangerous to assign because parents can become resentful of one another or the child becomes confused with whom to obey. If Mom and Dad are not on the same page then the child does not know when he is right or wrong, causing internal conflict.

Often as a social worker, I become a mediator in an effort to improve communication between partners. When attempting to improve family relations and communication, it helps to have a calm discussion about making the child or children your focal point, with every discussion emphasizing expectations, consequences and limits.

It is also important to be sensitive to the other parent’s beliefs because they are most likely rooted in the way they were raised. For example, Mom might think it’s OK to negotiate bed curfew because she was allowed wiggle room as a teen, but Dad might be more rigid in his parenting and not tolerate this behavior because of his upbringing. If there are differing rules among partners, the child gets mixed signals and will split Mom and Dad, taking the attention off himself and causing an argument between them. This is a skillful tactic that children learn and use frequently as a way to get out of trouble, thus it is very important to be on the same page as parents.

One way to eliminate the fighting and mixed messages is to sit down together and come up with separate non-negotiable lists or rules. Examples might include consequences for rules broken, rewards, curfew time or a consistent bedtime. Once your list is complete, do not bend or break the rules. The point of setting limits is to teach the child right, wrong and — above all — safety comes first. When partners get caught up in the roles of who does what, or fight regarding severity of the punishment, the child is the one suffering and nothing is learned. Co-parenting provides stability for your child, feelings of security, better understanding of how to problem-solve and gives your children examples of good parenting. Remember: The key to co-parenting is communication and keeping the focus on your children.

Hannah Nail Coble is a clinical social worker who works with children and adolescents at Cone Health Behavioral Health Hospital. Send questions to Sherri McMillen at sherri.mcmillen@conehealth.com.

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