What if not?
Today, let’s talk about the challenges that come with co-parenting with a partner who isn’t on board (yet?) with respectful parenting. Stick around till the end to hear about what you can do in the heat of the moment when you notice your partner in conflict with your child.
It’s a common story. You’ve read a dozen books, you follow countless peaceful and respectful parenting “influencers,” and you’re committed to raising your child from this mindful and intentional perspective. As you start to embrace a new way of parenting, you might encounter a lot of pushback from your partner who doesn’t understand why you’re parenting in this way, so almost all of the “connected” parenting falls to you. It’s as if your partner doesn’t have any alternatives other than yelling, shutting down emotionality, intimidation, and doling out punishments. They get so irritated with their perception of your parenting as permissive or passive that you might even buckle under the pressure and dial up the harsh or strict parenting in their presence. It can feel like there’s no way forward.
While you have a relationship with your child in which the trust and expectations are clear—sometimes it’s just not the same with your child’s other parent. Your partner may often find themselves in power struggles and endless negotiations. From your partner’s “traditional parenting” perspective, your child seems out of control and disrespectful. It’s outlandish to them that you “allow” your child to have explosive outbursts over “unimportant” things.
From your perspective, however, you realize that your kiddo is having developmentally appropriate regulation challenges that you’re fully confident they’ll outgrow without you having to control or coerce them away. Meanwhile, your partner sees your child’s expression of big feelings as unacceptable—something to be stopped or punished before you adults drown in a sea of disrespect. They may believe that shaming is an appropriate tool for changing another person’s behavior. The pressure to treat children as problems and objects to be controlled is huge as it is—and when it’s coming from someone you love, it can be hard to bear.
So what can you do in this challenging situation?
Say what you see
When you notice your partner and your child are having difficulty with one another, instead of getting involved, say what you observe, not what you’re interpreting or judgments you have about your partner’s behavior. You could say something like, “Looks like kiddo is angry because she wants the screen time she was promised. And Dad seems frustrated about the dishes left on the sink. This is a tough problem!” Not only will both parties feel heard, but you’re also giving them both information about the other person’s emotional state, helping them to understand where the other person is coming from.
Be the parent you want your child’s other parent to be
Sometimes you can only lead by example with respectful parenting—so model what you want to see. Give your partner opportunities to observe you and the way you are with your child when they’re having big feelings or have done something unacceptable. Your partner may learn from you in that way. So work on finding the way that you want to respond to your child, and work on getting good at it—because your partner may be watching or listening and taking it in.
Share your perspective with your partner
When you’re on different pages as parents, it can be hard to have discussions about it without both of you becoming defensive, so set yourselves up for success. Unless it’s egregious—like someone is in danger of being seriously physically or emotionally harmed—try to stay out of it until you and your partner can speak privately. And when you do get them alone, ask for permission to share your views by saying something like “Hey—I had a thought about your interaction with kiddo earlier. Are you in a place to hear it right now?” Or when your partner questions your parenting choices, you can respond, “I have a different perspective on that—do you want to hear it?” Asking for permission not only models another way of sharing a different view, but it also allows them to mentally prepare for hearing something that will conflict with their currently held opinions.
Arrange time for your partner and child
Consider adjusting your schedule so that they have one-on-one time without you. You might notice their relationship dramatically improve. If you’re not around, they just have to work it out—and they will! Let them build trust together and in themselves. You can’t control how your partner interacts with your child. Think of what routine caregiving time they can spend together, like meals, bathing, getting dressed, school pick-ups and drop-offs, and doctor appointments.
Establish regular family meetings
Sometimes it helps to sit down together and come up with a plan—in writing—that works for everyone. Have everyone state what they need. What results does your partner want—is it to make sure certain behavior never happens again? This is a great time to explain to your partner that instead of reacting by doling out a punishment or consequence that probably won’t have much of an effect, the meeting is an opportunity to collaborate with your child to come up with a concrete and thorough plan for how you both will respond the next time your child has big feelings, or breaks a rule or otherwise behaves in ways that don’t work for the adults.
The caveat: the plan you come up with needs to work for everyone in the meeting. Invite your family members to help come up with a solution to the conflict. Everyone has an opportunity to suggest a possible solution. Then you all critically evaluate each suggestion and eventually make a decision on a final solution that is acceptable to all of you. People are more motivated to carry out a decision that they’ve participated in making—rather than one that’s being imposed on them by someone else.
Did you know that how a baby’s caregivers communicate with them not only impacts brain development but also how they go on to behave in relationships in the future? Dr. Coor explains how respectful communication can positively impact your current relationship with your child and their future relationships. Listen to that episode right in this player:
It’s especially challenging when your partner hasn’t actually expressed that they want their parent-child relationship to change. Sometimes you might just read their upset and discomfort in their eyes and their body language. Maybe they talk about how they just can’t deal with people who “don’t listen,” or hit, or resist—even though your child is a toddler and those are just developmentally normal behaviors.
Your partner might need to do some work on themselves and get to a place where they invest in parenting and invest time in learning how to engage with your particular child. Or perhaps they could be more open to reading or learning about typical behavior for your child’s age or why punishments and imposed consequences are ineffective. But the fact is, if it’s not high on your partner’s priority list, it’s not going to happen. And it’s your partner’s responsibility to foster the relationship with their child. It’s not your responsibility, and it’s not your child’s responsibility either.
It’s hard to have such a stark difference from a person you’re so connected to. If you’re not in therapy, you might find it helpful to journal about your thoughts and feelings that arise for you around this situation. Try to identify how these thoughts and feelings show up in your body sensations and try to label the resulting emotions and then show yourself some self-compassion. It’s challenging not to be on the same page with your parenting partner!
Practice makes progress
Your best bet is to stay out of clashes between your partner and your child. Habitually inserting yourself in order to “save” your child when times get hard between your partner and your child won’t help the situation. When you step in to relieve everyone’s angst, no one gets to practice conflict resolution.
Instead, the next time you witness a conflict between your child and your partner, try to model empathy for your partner in the same way you’re hoping they would show empathy to your child.
Try asking what you can do to be supportive to your partner. That could sound like: “What do you need right now—how can I help?” Or when you notice your child laughing off a limit your partner is trying to set, and you see a conflict about to ensue, you might say something to your partner like “Ugh! It’s so infuriating to feel like you’re not taken seriously!”
When people feel seen and heard, they’re often more likely to listen. And the more connected you are with hearing out your partner, the more responsive they may be about responding to your child more sensitively.
Test it out and report back!
In conclusion, rest assured
People generally learn to parent through being parented themselves. Those brain pathways got laid down in childhood—so changing them isn’t an overnight fix. Try to have compassion for your partner in the same way you would for your child. Also, sometimes it’s better to accept that others may just not change and that badgering and shaming them about it won’t encourage them to do so.
Trust in your child’s resilience and the strength of your relationship with them. Trust that when your partner begins to notice the trust building between you and your child, your partner may feel motivated to watch how you’re handling parenting situations and you may even hear them start to parrot your go-to responses.
Rest assured that you’re making good choices for your child that will really pay off one day, so stand strong in your own convictions. Remember that respecting kids isn’t ever a wrong thing to do. And also remember that you can’t control the relationship between your child and their other parent. Let your partner have their own relationship with your child. Don’t let your fears about the future insert themselves into their relationship. They’ll figure it out!
It’s hard to have the confidence to keep going with respectful parenting when you’re not getting support from your partner. But don’t give up! Remember that even if only one parent engages in non-punitive, attuned, and empathetic parenting, this will still make a huge difference in your child’s life.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.