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Conflicts Over Parenting Styles

How to keep your differences from hurting your kids

Writer: Juliann Garey

Clinical Experts: Alan Ravitz, MD, MS , Laura Marshak, PhD

At some point most couples are going to differ on how to approach parenting.

“I think in almost every family you’re going to find some disagreements,” says Alan Ravitz, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist. “In my own family I know there were times when I thought my wife was too harsh and there were times when she thought I was too easy.” The important thing is to present a united front. “You shouldn’t disagree in front of the child,” he says. “You should disagree behind closed doors.”

This becomes especially challenging when parents develop extreme differences in their approaches to parenting-particularly when the child or children are struggling with a psychiatric diagnosis or a learning disability and treatment decisions need to be made. In these situations, the parents’ ability—or inability—to reach an agreement can mean the difference between successful treatment and an anxiety-provoking situation in which the child is left alone to sort out and interpret the confusing and often painful mixed signals they are getting from their parents.

Striking a balance

Maria and Alex consider themselves to be happily married, but when they fight it’s always about their children and it always goes the same way. “He’d say I don’t convey a message to our children that I care how they do in school or that I feel they have to work hard or that I care whether they get into a good college,” Maria says. “And I think he’s so hard on them that it leaves no room for me to be tough on them because I don’t think they can be getting that message over and over again.”

Their disagreements also involve treatment issues. All three of their children, ages 12 to 16, attend a high-pressured private school. Their youngest child, Grace, has been experiencing serious anxiety, especially around school and test-taking, and she takes medication for it. “Alex was more aggressive about getting her psychiatrist to prescribe medication than I was, but I think it’s helped a lot,” says Maria.

“Then we got her evaluated and came to the conclusion that she was ADDish,” says Maria with a heavy dose of skepticism. Does Maria believe her daughter needs Ritalin? “I think the bar for diagnosing someone with ADD has gotten a lot, lot lower and my husband was really aggressive in wanting to get her treated with medication for that.” Her husband, she says, feels that he should give all his children any possible advantage they can get.

Dr. Ravitz, who has been working with families for 30 years, says, “Bottom line: If the parents insist on continuing to disagree, you really can’t get any data to support one side’s interpretation of the problem as opposed to the other’s. Because really all the data you’re getting is what the child is like when the child is getting mixed signals or what the child’s treatment is like when the child is getting inconsistent treatment.” So someone has to be willing to compromise and let their way of doing things be back-burnered while the other parent’s “style” or approach is tested.

This sounds reasonable—but what if you can’t even get both people into the same room?

Divorced parenting

Nick freely admits that while he was married he left most of the childcare decision-making to his wife. “And then we got divorced,” Once he was divorced, Nick realized he didn’t always agree with his wife’s decisions and, no longer concerned with “keeping the peace,” he began speaking up.

The couple’s son, Oscar, had struggled with anxiety and was recently diagnosed with ADHD. Nick gives his ex-wife a tremendous amount of credit for making sure their son got accommodations at his public school. “But during the crisis times, when he was falling apart in front of us, she and I would differ on how to deal with that.” Her inclination was to let him stay home until he calmed down and felt better—then deal with the fall-out later. But Nick says the fall-out—falling further and further behind in his academic work—just created more anxiety, which served to fuel the emotional fire. “We’d just end up playing catch up for the whole year.

When it comes to making decisions about their children, Dr. Ravitz says it’s imperative that divorced parents have to want to find a middle ground. If Dr. Ravitz can get both parents into his office, he does what he can to help them along. “But if the conflict between the parents is such that there is a reflexive unthinking rejection of what the other parent has to say, then the child always suffers because the child never gets the treatment that he needs.”

So what’s the best thing for your child if you and your partner can’t agree on how to parent?

Dr. Ravitz says the only answer that will do your kid any good is to commit to testing one theory at a time-whether it’s medicating vs. not medicating, a certain kind of behavioral therapy, or a particular style of parenting. “What I typically tell parents,” he says, “is they can disagree but they have to honestly and authentically test hypotheses. So if the hypothesis is that the kid doesn’t have ADHD and doesn’t need medication and just needs behavioral intervention—ok let’s try it for 3 or 6 months very sincerely. If it works that’s great. If not, let’s go to plan B. People have to compromise and they can’t be stubborn.”

Give and take

Laura Marshak, PhD, a psychologist and the author of Married With Special Needs Children: A Couples Guide to Staying Connected, thinks that kids can actually benefit from parents’ differing approaches, though she makes a distinction between conflicting approaches that “stem from a lack of goodwill or respect in the couple’s relationship”—a larger problem—and a little inconsistency. “Consistency,” she says, “can be over-rated in its impact on a child given that they will need to operate in a world that is not entirely consistent. For example, they need to adapt to the style of different teachers in the school setting, grandparents, and extended family members.”

So according to Dr. Marshak, within the context of a reasonably happy marriage or even an amicable divorce, some variation in parenting style can be beneficial to kids. The key is nurturing whatever relationship exists. As Dr. Ravitz says, couples “have to be open-minded about the possibility that the other person is right.”

Or, on the other hand, it can be useful to to be willing to drop the issue, as illustrated by a moment between David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld in an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Letterman tells a story of a situation that arose with his young son, who said he couldn’t go to his first baseball practice of the season because he hurt his hand in a go-cart mishap (Letterman had been co-conspirator on building the go-cart).

“What would you do you do in that situation?” Letterman asks Seinfeld.

Seinfeld’s response: “I support whatever position my wife takes.”

Letterman, shocked: “Because she knows more about parenting than you do?”

Seinfeld, deadpan: “The thing is, it doesn’t matter what you do, but why have a fight with your wife?”

This article was last reviewed or updated on February 8, 2023.