We have been happily married for fifteen years and believe we have handled most of our parenting well, but now our fourteen year old daughter’s drive for independence often causes us to argue. When she wants to go to a party or to the mall with her friends, my husband and I react differently, in ways that surprise both of us.
Usually, she goes to my husband first for permission, because he is more likely to let her go and not ask for details. When I find out, I end up being the bad guy because I insist on knowing who she is meeting or calling the parents who are hosting the party. If I say she can’t go, she throws a fit, and sometimes my husband overrules me, right there in front of her, saying we need to trust her. I think he doesn’t want to see her disappointed, but then I am angry at him and worried all evening. I’m afraid my husband and I are hurting our relationship, not to mention setting a bad example for our daughter. What can we do to keep our marriage together when our daughter stresses us out?
All parents face the tough job of striking a balance between balancing privileges and safety. When one parent is more protective than the other, tends to think more vividly about the dangers that are out there, or is more prone to worry in general, a teen is likely to notice the cracks in the parental unit and drift toward the parent most likely to allow freedoms. To minimize the strong emotions and conflicts that tend to happen in the throes of decision-making, consider the steps below.
- Set aside time to talk to your spouse about your mutual commitment to your marriage and to the job of parenting. Name the thoughts you have when your daughter makes requests (e.g., “I just want her to have fun,” “She’ll hate me if I say no” or “I just know there will be alcohol at that party”), and talk about ways to relieve that concern. Remind yourselves that your daughter and your relationship will benefit if you can present a united front about your household rules.
- Consider your teen’s developmental level. Early adolescence is a period of insecurity for many teens. They want to be part of the group that seems to have it together and also feel fairly invincible as far as the dangers that are out there. Take time to ask what your teen is thinking, hoping and dreaming. Ask how she can participate at some level without endangering herself or causing you excessive worry (Face it: you’re always going to worry a little).
- Decide ahead of time the basic permissions you are both comfortable with in a given scenario and promise each other that you will present decisions as a team. Let your daughter know the basic rules about parties or going out. When she surprises you with a new request, tell her, “I’ll talk with your mother/father about this and we’ll get back to you with our answer.” Then hold a private discussion with each other.
- Work out ways to back each other up. One way to show your support for each other is to have the stricter parent go first – the one who is more likely to say “no” to a situation – and plan that the other parent will agree saying, “Your mother (or father) said, ‘no,’ and I agree.” If your daughter poses a reasonable argument, tell her you will take her statements back to the other parent for consideration. Again have a private parental discussion. If the information prompts a change of heart, allow the stricter parent to be the one to give the good news, to help balance the permission granting. Finally, agree that you will both watch for disrespectful behavior from the daughter and back each other up about that, too, e.g., “It’s not okay to talk to your father/mother that way, and here is the consequence…” Talk about hypothetical situations. This may reassure you that your teen can make good decisions in difficult situations. For example, during dinner, casually bring up scenarios you have read about in the news or heard about from friends – don’t mention names. Ask your daughter what she might do if faced such a situation. If she gives a reasonable answer, let her know you are pleased with her thinking and add any suggestions you might have. If she gives a less than satisfactory response, suggest a few things that could happen as a result and ask what she might do instead. It also can be interesting to ask your daughter what she thinks about the complete lack of rules some parents seem to have. Often, teens will admit they view overly permissive parents as not really caring about their children.
- Building trust and character take time. Let your teen know that the more she shows herself to be trustworthy, the more trust you will give. Yes, you want her to have fun, but you also love her and thus, her safety is your top concern. Parents sometimes have tough decisions to make, but sticking by your rules, even in the face of a child’s unhappiness, is showing your love. Not bending to pressure from others when things don’t seem safe is a skill you hope she also will exercise as she ventures out in the world on her own.
Finally, if necessary, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. It is a sign of love, not weakness to seek help from a therapist or counselor who can help all family members voice their concerns, reframe the conflict as one borne in love and possibly fear, and move toward solutions that will work for everyone.
Dr. Madison is a clinical psychologist, author and director of FOCCUS, Inc. USA. She speaks internationally on topics related to children, marriage and families.