It is best if adults can parent children with a united front – that is they each have the same rules, with rewards when children behave well and consequences when they don’t.

Children quickly work out where there are differences in the way their parents deal with misbehaviour. There is normally one ‘disciplinarian’ and one ‘pushover’ who they can usually approach to get their own way. And to be fair, it is good for children to have two parents with slightly different strengths and weaknesses as it helps them to grow into more rounded individuals. But what is not good is when we teach our children that they can be manipulative and where parents feel frustrated that the other parent has let the child have something they expressly banned or allowed the child to do something when they had already said no. This problem is compounded when there are ‘blended families’ and one adult is not the child’s biological parent, so finds it difficult to discipline them. Or where parents have separated and have very different rules and routines in their homes. With separated parents, it is very useful if a united approach can be negotiated where both parents are still determined to work together for the good of their child. However, if this is not possible most children will learn to adapt to different rules with different parents.

So how can adults decide what rules and routines they want in their home? A clue is where there are ‘hot spots’. If there are times of the day when people are more likely to lose their tempers then there is probably a rule missing. If bedtime is a battleground or getting the children to do their homework is a nightmare, then adults need to address why. If you are feeling resentful towards your partner for letting children get away with things or not being consistent, then it is likely that you may not both understand each other’s approach.

An important thing to remember is that there may not be one ‘right’ way to do it. You may both be ‘right’ in how you want to bring up your children, but what is not good is when children are given mixed messages or learn they have the power to divide their parents. What children need for their own security and well-being is parents who have come to a decision about rules and routines and where there are the same consistent limits when they misbehave. And parents need to know what values and morals that they want to instil in their children so that behaviour that they want, such as kindness, helping around the home, good manners or self-discipline is consistently rewarded.

Problem-solving as parents have five important steps which are listed below

1.      Work out the problem

  • Arrange a time where you can both sit down and talk about the problem.
  • If you want to achieve a solution, have a no-blame approach. Use ‘I messages’ such as ‘I feel angry when Jake is allowed to go to the park and I have said no’ or ‘I would like the children to be in bed by 7.30 so I can have a chance to relax in the evening’. If you think that you may launch into a personal attack of your partner write your ‘I messages’ before your chat. And avoid statements that include ‘you always….’ ‘you never…..’ or ‘I hate it when you….’ Be non-judgemental if you want to be successful in sorting out the issue.
  • You can tell your partner how you are feeling, but don’t blame them. And if you have had a part to play in the problem, admit it. Allow them to do the same.
  • Tackle issues one at a time
  • Give each person the chance to talk about the issue but keep the discussion brief and to the point. Maybe put a time limit of 10 minutes on any one issue (set a timer if it helps) so you can move on to the next step when you have both had your say.
  • Focus the discussion on what you want to happen in the future. Each of you should get a chance to say how important it is to you and what you would like to happen
  • If the discussion gets heated it should stop, and be re-arranged for another time when you are both calmer. A successful outcome is more likely if you have both made non-blaming statements, and are determined to find a solution for your family.

2.      State what you want to happen

  • Summarise the problem maybe by writing it down without any blame attached.
  • Work out a realistic goal, what you want to happen, for your children or family.

3.      Suggest a range of solutions

  • Write down as many solutions as you can think of – try and come up with between 15 and 30.
  • Don’t judge or censor suggestions – just write them down – the most imaginative solutions often flow from a ‘silly’ suggestion

4.      Plan which solutions you want to try

  • Look at all the suggestions
  • Rule out any suggestion you absolutely could not agree with and allow your partner to do the same
  • Think about the remaining suggestions and the possible impact of each
  • Are there any barriers to you following through on certain suggestions? Can they be overcome?
  • Work out what solution (or combination of solutions) you think would be best for your family
  • Come up with a plan, and write it down.
  • Work out consequences and (free or cheap, really motivating) rewards for following the plan
  • Organise a time to look at your plan in a few weeks and see how effective it is
  • Recognise your achievement in coming up with a plan and if possible give yourselves a reward.

5.      Let the children know

  • Arrange a good time to talk with your child or children to let them know your plan.
  • Let them know the consequences and rewards and the benefits to every one of following the plan
  • Allow them to have their say, and carefully consider any suggestions they make or exceptions they want to negotiate – after all their cooperation is important and if they don’t feel involved they may try to sabotage your efforts.
  • Try to come up with a win-win solution for each person in the family. Remember you will be modelling behaviour that they will copy so be a bit flexible, but stick to your guns when it comes to the important issues.
  • Arrange a time with the children when you will review how everything is going, and how the plan is working.
  • If you can follow up with some nice family time together. Remind them of why they want to make this work, and how being part of your family is worth a little compromise and cooperation!

The last step in this process is to make sure you re-visit the issue in a few weeks to work out what has worked, iron out any problems, work out if anything needs to be adjusted and give yourselves credit for your problem-solving abilities!

child behavioural expert
The author:

Elizabeth O’Shea is a parenting specialist child behaviour expert and one of the leading parenting experts in the UK.

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