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What Science Says When Parents Don’t Agree on Parenting

New parents are often surprised when they realize they have different parenting styles.

Constantly arguing over parenting becomes a source of stress for the whole family.

It is normal for couples to have a minor disagreement every now and then.

They are often advised to talk it out, find common ground, agree on consequences, and support each other.

It’s great if these steps work.

But what if you’ve tried everything but nothing works?

What if you are co-parenting with another family that refuses to work together?

parents fighting with husband over parenting

What To Do When Parents Can’t Agree On Parenting

It is not always possible for two parents to agree on parenting styles or discipline strategies.

In fact, most couples do not.

Here are some things you can do if you find yourself constantly fighting with your husband or wife over discipline issues.

Accept that you Cannot Change Others

Here’s the brutal truth: we cannot change those who do not want to change​1​.

If someone believes their way is the only way and they don’t want to change, no amount of talking can change that.

It applies not only to the other parent but also to ourselves.

Accept that, don’t try to change others, and stop fighting.

No united front is necessary

In psychology, there are four Baumrind parenting styles: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and neglectful.

Among these styles of parenting, authoritative parenting is the best.

When parents have different beliefs in parenting, they worry that a lack of unity may confuse their children or allow them to pit the parents against each other.

The good news is that isn’t necessarily true.

A 2007 study conducted by the University of Central Florida examined the effects of different parenting approaches among parents.

In different combinations of maternal and paternal parenting, adolescents who had at least one authoritative parent adjusted better than those who did not have such a parent​2​.

Having one authoritative parent is better than having none.

It is ok not to have a unified front if there is at least one authoritative parent.

Authoritative parents in the family should keep doing what they do. Changing the authoritative parenting style just to appear united is not a good idea.

Authoritarian parents, permissive parents, and uninvolved parents should consider adjusting their styles in the best interest of their children.

Think about the type of parent you want to be in your child’s life.

Explain, not contradict

Children cannot split their parents and use parenting disagreements to their advantage if the parents do not contradict each other or undo the other’s decisions.

Your children will also not be confused if you explain the situation clearly.

You can explain the reasons behind different opinions without discrediting or judging the other parent.

A narrative naming what parents do and why they do it can help children understand why parents discipline them differently. 

They learn to navigate relationships with different people just like in the real world.

This is critical in a child’s development.

Using reasoning to discipline is associated with better socioemotional and cognitive outcomes in children​3​.

If the other parent is open to talking, ask them to join the discussion.

If not, you provide the explanation but keep it as objective as possible.

Emphasize that despite significant differences in parenting style, both of you are motivated by the love for your kids when making parenting decisions.

“I am not exactly sure why Dad does this. But we all tend to parent the way we were parented. Maybe he has certain beliefs about parenting from his own childhood. He thinks that taking your phone away can help you focus on studying.”

“Everyone has different life experiences that shape who they are. We may have different viewpoints, but I respect his decision and you should, too.”

Agree to Disagree and Be Consistent

Disagreement over the approach to parenting has probably put a strain on your relationship. 

Parents fighting in front of the kids is stressful for children.

Frequent conflicts over parenting styles are associated with increased aggression in children and defiance​4​.

If you cannot reach an agreement, agree to disagree.

As long as the other parent is not using aggressive parenting techniques that are abusive, such as spanking which should be intervened, let them parent the way they want and you parent the way you want. Agree on respecting each other’s parenting decisions.

Consistency in both parents’ parenting strategies is also necessary so children know the family rules and what to expect from both parents.

Clear parenting goals and values

Set common long-term goals and core values with the other parent.

Parenting goals and family values can often settle differences of opinion.

For example, if the goal is to raise a well-adjusted adult, should parents punish the child for behavior issues or teach the child to stop bad behavior patiently, even if it takes longer?

Does ignoring a child in a tantrum or helping them calm down reflect kindness as a family value?

Be Your Child’s Safe Haven

Help your child develop a secure attachment by becoming their safe haven.

If you are an authoritative parent and the other parent practices authoritarian parenting, you are the one who can help your child develop a secure attachment​5​.

You are their secure base and safe haven.

Be sensitive to your child’s needs, especially when there is distress caused by the other parent​6​.

Don’t undermine or portray the other parent as the bad guy. Don’t throw your partner under the bus.

Be there for your child.

Empathize with them and validate their feelings.

“You must feel that Dad was being unfair.”

“It must feel horrible not being able to go out until your homework is completed.”

Seek family therapy

When couples cannot compromise on parenting practices, it may be indicative of tension in the adult relationship, too.

The quality of the parent-child relationship is linked to the quality of the marital relationship.

The lack of emotional closeness in your romantic relationship often leads to angry fights when discussing parenting issues. Conflicts like these further corrode your marriage and family life​7​.

The interconnected issue in relationships can be addressed with professional help for the entire family from a family therapist.

Final Thoughts on What to Do When Parents Don’t Agree on Parenting

Science tells us that the impact of parenting styles on child development is undeniable. 

A warm and responsive approach to parenting, as well as high standards, are believed to be the best parenting style to raise a well-adjusted child.

A parent’s deeply held parenting beliefs, however, can be difficult to change. Rather than trying to change others, being a safe haven for your child serves their best interests.

References

  1. 1.
    Prochaska JO. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. Published online 1999:83-102. doi:10.1023/a:1023210911909
  2. 2.
    McKinney C, Renk K. Differential Parenting Between Mothers and Fathers. Journal of Family Issues. Published online November 7, 2007:806-827. doi:10.1177/0192513×07311222
  3. 3.
    Critchley CR, Sanson AV. Is parent disciplinary behavior enduring or situational? A multilevel modeling investigation of individual and contextual influences on power assertive and inductive reasoning behaviors. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Published online July 2006:370-388. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2006.04.006
  4. 4.
    Emery RE. Interparental conflict and the children of discord and divorce. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 1982:310-330. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.92.2.310
  5. 5.
    Doinita NE, Maria ND. Attachment and Parenting Styles. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. Published online August 2015:199-204. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.08.282
  6. 6.
    Kerns KA, Mathews BL, Koehn AJ, Williams CT, Siener-Ciesla S. Assessing both safe haven and secure base support in parent–child relationships. Attachment & Human Development. Published online May 12, 2015:337-353. doi:10.1080/14616734.2015.1042487
  7. 7.
    Fincham FD, Osborne LN. Marital conflict and children: retrospect and prospect. Clinical Psychology Review. Published online January 1993:75-88. doi:10.1016/0272-7358(93)90009-b

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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