PARENTS WHO DISAGREE – Tools to Make Fights Better

Do you and you partner have different approaches to parenting your children? Do you struggle to avoid disagreeing about parenting? Do you wish you could work together instead of feeling like you’re always against each other? This article looks at developing edifying ways to resolve conflict in family units with multiple caregiving adults.

Please note, this article has been written based on the family structure where there are two primary caregivers parenting the children. It considers the importance of healthy communication for a stable and safe home environment for the children and parents. The terms ‘parents’ and ‘partners’ are used throughout the article for simplicity, but these terms can refer to any type of parents and romantic, familial or platonic relationship between caregivers.

However, childcare isn’t always divided between two primary caregivers. Families come in different forms and structures, each with difficulties and conflicts. Family structures can vary and can include blended families, single parent families and responsibility for parenting by grandparents at times. The strategies and examples explained in this article provide insight and direction, although not all will apply to every family dynamic. The aim is to provide an entry into this area of parenting and further articles will explore other family structures and dynamics for consideration.

Your parenting style reflects your beliefs and values, what lessons you want to pass on, and avoiding the mistakes your parents made, so it can feel essential to parent in whatever way you think is best. Unfortunately, it’s rare for parents to entirely share a vision of how to best raise their children, which can lead to ongoing disagreements.

Conflicts between parents are unavoidable, but they aren’t destructive if you can keep them healthy. This requires strong communication and conflict resolution skills. Without these abilities, your disagreements can quickly escalate and become hurtful reoccurring conflicts. You likely won’t make any progress, change your partner’s mind, or agree to accommodate how your partner thinks you should parent. Over time, these fights are likely to harm your relationship with each other, as well as creating an unpleasant environment for your children.

More than anything else, children need to feel safe and loved, and ongoing conflict between the two most important people in their lives has a high potential to make them feel insecure. Therefore, it’s very important for parents to know how to have healthy conflicts, find compromises, and follow through on what they agree to – even if they aren’t convinced it’s for the best.

Parenting can be challenging, especially when parents have competing beliefs, priorities, and visions for their children’s futures, but the ability to resolve your differences to be united and consistent is incredibly important to raising happy well-adjusted children and preserving the quality of your relationship with each other.

Disagreements about how to best raise your child are inevitable, but they don’t have to be harmful. When parents share a common approach to parenting, the entire family is more likely to thrive.

How children are affected by parental conflict

Do your children have different rules with each parent? How much do they know about disagreements?

When parents have ongoing unhealthy conflicts about how to parent their children, their children’s environment is often tense and inconsistent. This makes them feel unsafe, unsure how they should behave, and that they have very little control over their lives. Children need a stable environment where they know what is expected of them and what isn’t tolerated so they can feel secure and anticipate their parents’ reactions to their behaviour.

These feelings of unease and instability can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Children when have a tense and/or inconsistent home life are at a greater risk for developing behavioural problems, learning disabilities, anger management problems, anxiety, and depression. They can have difficulties managing stress, struggle to form healthy relationships with their peers, have trouble sleeping, experience headaches and nausea, and have poor focus.

Some children blame themselves for their parents’ conflicts and think they have to change to stop the fighting. These beliefs can lead to high levels of self-blame, internalised guilt, and perfectionism. As children get older, they can learn how to exploit the differences between their parents, not only to get what they want but also to increase the levels of control they have over their lives in what can be an unpredictable environment.

Even if you and your partner do your best to hide your conflicts and disagreements from your children, they’re likely aware of the tension. Because parents have so much control and influence over their children’s lives, children instinctively pay close attention to their parents’ emotions to gauge how safe their environment is, and the tension of fights is difficult to hide. Parents are also less emotionally available and present for their children after a hurtful fight. So it’s almost impossible to completely hide parental conflict from children.

The fights you have with your partner about how to raise your children are likely because you both want what’s best for them, but you have different ideas about what is best and how to achieve your vision.

One of you could be right, but if you can’t resolve your differences and find compromises, your conflicts might be doing more damage than would result from adopting an imperfect rule or approach. This isn’t to suggest that one of you should unconditionally give in to the other to avoid fights, but to put into perspective the consequences of fights that cause tension and instability at home and give you motivation to resolve your conflicts in healthier ways.

Disagreements themselves aren’t unhealthy – when your children see you resolving your differences and finding compromises they learn valuable conflict resolution skills. But unhealthy fights don’t teach them anything valuable and create a tense environment.

Children don’t need a highly specific set of circumstances created through certain types of parenting styles to thrive. What’s more important for them than anything else is how safe and loved they feel with their parents, and they’re the most likely to feel secure if you and your partner can create a consistent environment that is free of the tension unhealthy conflicts create.

Understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy fights

How would you describe the majority of fights between you and your partner? How do you typically feel after a disagreement or an argument? Are you willing to change your mind and behaviour in order to compromise?

With all of the decisions parents have to make about how to raise their children, it’s impossible to always agree, but their conflicts can be healthy and therefore not damaging to the relationship.

In unhealthy fights, partners tend to view each other as an enemy who is trying to stop them from getting something that’s important to them and they use hurtful methods in an attempt to ‘win’ the fight and get their own way. The most damaging of these include: calling each other names, making threats, bringing up painful memories or mistakes from the past, misrepresenting what the other said or wants, playing the victim, shutting down, and refusing to listen.

But in healthy conflicts, there isn’t a winner or loser because the couple don’t think of themselves as opponents – they’re teammates who have a problem to solve together. They may want different outcomes, but they cooperate to find a solution they can both accept. Even if the topic is emotional, they work hard not to hurt each other by doing things like: taking breaks from the discussion when they need them, not letting the conversation get too intense, and stopping themselves from saying something disrespectful.

But many people don’t have the skills or even an understanding of how to have healthy conflicts. Fortunately, these abilities can be learned and strengthened if you (and ideally – but not necessarily – your partner) are willing to invest the time and energy to build them.

Skills to resolve parenting conflicts

Do you know how to keep conversations healthy? Are you able to recognise when it’s not a good time to talk about an emotionally charged topic? Are you a good communicator?

If you and your partner want to resolve ongoing conflicts, it’s essential that you have healthy disagreements. The goal of disagreements should be to find a solution, but this is difficult, if not impossible, when conflicts are unhealthy. Disrespectful conflicts make most people upset and therefore unreceptive to listening to their partner or changing their mind. If you or your partner do decide to accept what the other wants, it’s likely that you’re only doing this to end the fight and aren’t convinced that doing things their way is a good idea, which can lead to resentment and more conflict in the future.

While you might not always find a solution or avoid getting your feelings hurt in healthy conflicts, they’re much less likely to lead to tension or lasting resentment, and increase your chances of finding a resolution, even though it won’t always be what you initially hoped for.

The following approaches to conflict are among the most useful for the majority of parents who want to have healthy disagreements:

1) Communicating

There are two parts to communicating – listening and speaking.

Although many people think that being a good communicator means efficiently and accurately sharing your beliefs, it’s more valuable to be a good listener. It doesn’t matter how well you or your partner can say what you think if the other isn’t going to listen.

Listening is an underdeveloped skill for a number of people. The most common reason for people not to listen is because while the other person is talking, they’re planning their response to be ready as soon as it’s their turn to speak. If they were to focus on the speaker, they would risk having a delayed and/or poorly formulated response, so giving someone your full attention can put you at a disadvantage in the conversation.

If this is a problem for you and your partner, you may be able to address it by building the habit of not giving or expecting a response as soon as one of you finished speaking. Although these breaks in conversations can seem awkward, they can be incredibly valuable because they give you the opportunity to listen and then plan a response, instead of trying to both at the same time.

People can also be poor listeners because they assume they already know what the other person is going to say. This is especially likely between partners who have been together for a long time and/or have had the same fights many times. But remind yourself that you still have plenty to learn about your partner and what they think, so be open and give them your full attention – you may be surprised by what you find out.

Becoming a better listener takes practice, but if you each know the benefits of listening and that the other is trying to give you their full attention, you can improve your communication.

But even when people are trying to listen to each other, they can misunderstand what they’re being told, often without realising. To avoid misunderstandings, it’s helpful to confirm what you believe your partner told you. This could be saying ‘So what you’re telling me is that you don’t like the idea of letting her have chips for breakfast but you think it’s better than nothing?’. Again, this may feel uncomfortable at first, but as you catch each other’s misunderstandings, you can improve your ability to communicate, which will help you keep fights healthy and find solutions.

2) Be curious about each other

Do you know why your partner wants to make certain parenting decisions? Are you familiar with the best and worst parts of their childhood? Have you talked about what beliefs, values, and traditions you want to pass on to your children?

Discussing what you each base your parenting decisions on can reveal a great deal about what you want and why you think this is important. You can learn your partner’s motivations, their hopes for the future, and what they’re trying to accomplish from the decisions they make. Gaining this context for their behaviour can make it easier to accept, or at least respect, how they want to parent.

If you both want the same results for your children but disagree on how to achieve this, you can try to find an approach you both think would be effective so you can work together as a team and be more consistent in how you parent.

You might not agree with your partner even after learning what your partner wants and why, but understanding their intentions and motivations can help you respect their ideas and make it easier to compromise.

3) Compromising

The ability to compromise is essential for all relationships, but it becomes especially important for parents who are raising children together.

Compromising involves understanding: what you each want and why, where you agree and disagree, and what each of you is willing to change or give up, then deciding on an approach you both think you can be happy with.

Commit to trying out what you decided for at least a few weeks, then discussing how you both feel. If one or both of you isn’t satisfied, consider a different approach. Some compromises take several attempts before you find a solution you can both accept.

Especially with parenting, compromising doesn’t have to mean agreeing to do the exact same things. There can be flexibility that respects your different personalities and relationships with your children. Parenting compromises are often the most effective and easy to honour when you establish the limits of what each of you can be happy with and respecting these boundaries. This could be accepting that your partner thinks bedtime can be later if your children are having fun and don’t want to go to bed, but restricting how late they can stay up to no more than half an hour past their usual bedtime.

If you try to fully agree on everything, there will constantly be dialogue about what’s best to do. Even if this is done in a very healthy way, it will still be exhausting. Part of parenting is accepting your different beliefs and priorities.

Few conflicts can be resolved if neither of you are willing to compromise. There may be some things you truly feel that you can’t compromise on, and it’s important not to agree to something that makes you uncomfortable or cause you to resent your partner. But you must also accept that you should rarely expect to entirely get your own way, and your partner has to do the same.

4) Accept that you may never truly agree

Most parents have some things they’ll never agree on. Usually these disagreements come from deeply held beliefs and values you can’t compromise on. Unresolvable disagreements can be especially challenging when they involve children because they affect someone other than yourselves. But they’re also more likely to occur so it’s important to identify them.

Although there might never be a long-term solution both you and your partner are fully happy with, you can still try to find a middle ground that you can both accept, even if it’s not what you really want. You may need to try several approaches, and it’s possible that none of them will work out. Instead of putting your energy into finding a resolution to these types of disagreements, it’s often more valuable to take a relaxed approach and respect your differences without exaggerating or distorting them.

Also keep in mind that even though you might never resolve your disagreements about parenting, you won’t always be raising children together. Eventually your children will grow up build lives of their own and you and your partner will no longer need to determine what is best for them.

5) Always treat each other with respect

Being disrespectful is an almost guaranteed way to bring more negativity to the relationship than it can handle. Becoming upset and saying something you regret is normal, but this should be something that rarely happens and you apologise afterwards because you want your partner to understand that you regret what you did or said.

It is challenging to have productive discussions while emotional, so it’s best to discuss sensitive matters when you’re calm, and do your best to keep disagreements from becoming too intense. Most parents have the best chance of keeping disagreements respectful by practicing the following:

  • Initiating discussions gently and when you’re both feeling relaxed and receptive
  • Knowing the feeling of getting upset and calming yourself down, or asking to take a break from the conversation if necessary, but with the genuine intention of finishing the discussion once you’re able to
  • Recognising when your partner is getting upset and knowing how to sooth them
  • Reminding yourself that your partner is a good person who only wants the best for your children
  • Accepting that your partner’s ideas could be better than yours so you’re open to changing your mind

Some people can struggle to resist the temptation to get upset and explode during conflicts, while others need to work on not shutting down and staying present with their partner to find a solution. But with practice just about anyone can learn how to have healthy conflicts.

Building conflict resolution skills can be very challenging, especially if you weren’t taught them growing up. This is why some people find it very beneficial to work with a professional, either as a family, with their partner, or individually. Professionals can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, the beliefs and hopes that drive your actions, reasons you may be resisting compromising or accepting your partner’s influence, and suggest techniques to improve these skills.

Professionally run workshops can also teach struggling parents a great deal, as can accessing materials that aim to teach conflict resolution and give further insight into parenting.

But you don’t need to work with a professional to make meaningful changes. All that’s needed to begin is understanding that you and your partner would benefit from changing how you approach conflict, the willingness to learn, and an idea of what you want for your family’s future.

Adapting your parenting styles

Being able to have healthy disagreements and find compromises when you and your partner disagree about parenting is important, but you’ll also have to follow through on what you agree to. You may be willing to accept a compromise in theory, but struggle to implement it in real life.

Choosing what you and your partner expect from your children can be more difficult if one or both of you comes from a different culture than the one that you’re living in. This can lead to disagreements about which of your traditional beliefs and values you want to preserve and if there are any cultural norms you don’t want your children to adopt.  

There is also an increased risk of conflicts with your children if you expect them to exhibit your traditional cultural norms they aren’t exposed to outside the home so their appreciation for them is underdeveloped and they aren’t meeting your expectations.

But even couples who didn’t grow up in a different culture from the one they’re living in can benefit from discussing any cultural norms they don’t agree with so they can introduce alternative ways of thinking to their children. For example, a vegan family living in an area where fishing is a popular pastime would likely benefit from one of these conversations.

Changing your rules and expectations for your child can be difficult, whether you’re typically the stricter parent and you’ve agreed to be more permissive, or you’ve been more lenient than your partner and are struggling to enforce rules you aren’t entirely convinced are necessary. But no matter what your compromises involve, staying committed can be easier if you remember what is most important for children to have: a safe and stable home life where they are loved.

Also take into consideration what your children want. Children crave a strong relationship with their parents and this benefits them more than anything else, so consider how you and your partner can adapt your parenting to engage with your child in ways that maximise your connection and gives your child room to explore who they are and what they want to become.

You and your partner don’t need to agree on everything relating your children or treat them in the exact same way. You’re both different people and it’s important to honour who you are in all of your relationships, including with your children. Treating your children differently than your partner does isn’t being inconsistent – it’s being authentic and forming a relationship with your child that feels natural to you, but respecting the boundaries that you and your partner agreed to.

Children don’t need a specific set of circumstances to thrive. Far more valuable than an environment that meets your expectations and levels of rules vs independence is one there there’s consistency, security and love. You may worry that some of the things you give up or compromises you make will have undesirable outcomes for your children, but as long as you and your partner are providing them with a safe and loving childhood, your children will likely thrive. So don’t be afraid to make concessions so you and your partner can be better aligned.

Separated parents

Partners aren’t exclusively people in a romantic relationship who are living together – they can also be separated parents who are raising children together.

If you and your partner in parenting are separated but you still discuss what you each want for your children, you can also benefit from knowing the principles of healthy communication, compromise, and conflict resolution. Even if you have a very limited relationship, it can still be unhealthy if you have damaging approaches to conflict and disagreements. Your children will almost certainly benefit if you listen to each other, discuss your different ideas and reasoning behind your parenting wishes, can find compromises, accept that you may always have your differences, and treat one another with respect so you can provide a stable and consistent approach to parenting.

Having consistent rules is especially valuable for children whose parents don’t live together. While it’s unavoidable that there will be differences in the environment from one home to the other (especially if there are any step-parents caring for the children) so it’s important to establish as much consistency as possible to compensate for the differences between your children’s two homes.

Parents who work together to establish boundaries for their children can be more at ease when their children are with their other parent. Although their partner may have a different parenting style and not all of the same rules, they can be confident that their children won’t be allowed to do anything they would find unacceptable.

Coming to parenting decisions can be more difficult for separated parents, but it has the potential to be even more valuable for the wellbeing of the entire family.

An outdoor chess game set up for the game to begin
When conflicts are healthy and productive, they can benefit your family

Parenting in any circumstances can be challenging, but it becomes even more demanding when you and your partner disagree on the best approach and have unhealthy conflicts.

Unhealthy conflicts are incredibly damaging to relationships between partners, but they create a difficult and detrimental environment for your children as well, whether this is due to different rules and expectations with each parent or from the stress and tension caused by your fighting.

Learning effective communication and conflict resolution skills, especially when you’re upset, can be challenging, and compromising is often time-consuming and exhausting. But you can make your relationship with your partner more enjoyable, create a healthier environment for your children, and strengthen your family’s connections by learning how to have healthy conflicts and find compromises.

Disagreements are inevitable, but ugly hurtful fights can and should be avoided for the benefit of your entire family. The ability to disagree respectfully is an incredibly valuable skill for all partners, but especially those with children. And when you and your partner can develop a consistent approach to parenting, your children will also benefit.

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