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The Parent Trap: How to Avoid Default Parent Syndrome

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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There’s a phenomenon that regularly occurs in parenting that we need to discuss.

It’s called default parent syndrome.

You probably know what we’re talking about: when one parent becomes the default parent and one parent becomes the back-up parent.

Parenting magazines, websites, and the mainstream news media have picked up on this. They highlight one unfortunate by-product of the default/back-up parenting dynamic, which is that the parent who falls into the default role often becomes resentful of the parent who falls into the backup role.

While it’s possible to understand this discussion just by knowing the definition of the word default and knowing the meaning of the phrase back-up, we’ll take a moment to make sure we’re all on the same page.

The default parent is the parent who does the lion’s share of the day-to-day work of parenting. The default parent makes the breakfast, gets the lunches ready, does most of the school pick-ups and carpooling, helps with homework and knows the kid’s schedules without having to check a calendar. The back-up parent is the one who steps in when the default parent is out of town, sick, or needs a little bit of support. The default parent shares a majority of the kid’s successes, minor and major, but also shares a majority of the hardships. The back-up parent often handles childcare duties on weekend afternoons, off-days and holidays, while the default parent handles childcare duties at all other times.

Division of Labor

It’s easy to see how and why these roles develop – work schedules and traditional gender roles are a prime place to start – but the media buzz about this default/back-up dynamic presents the situation as a done deal that happens no matter what.

Sometimes parents buy in to this point of view, and think of it as an unavoidable fact of life. They’re convinced they just have to recognize their role and accept the situation. However, this point-of-view is a classic false dilemma. The fact is that neither parent has to be locked into one role or the other.

How to Avoid the Default/Back-up Dynamic

The most important reason to avoid the default/back-up dynamic is to ease family tension and ensure that one parent isn’t carrying unnecessary anger or harboring hurt feelings about who does what in the home. Here are four basic concepts all parents and families can keep in mind to avoid creating a toxic parenting situation:

1. Awareness.

If the family financial situation dictates that one parent works full time and the other parent stays home and handles most of the childcare duties, simply recognizing this fact and putting it on the table will go a long way toward avoiding any resentment. Both parents need to be aware that the other is doing their part for the family. The stay-at-home parent handles the domestic side of the equation and the go-to-work parent handles the financial side of the equation. Another thing for each parent to be aware of is that both jobs are equally important. Without a day-to-day caregiver, the children would be without the essentials. But without someone to provide for the family, the essentials would not be there to give. Both are necessary and neither is more important than the other.

2. Appreciation.

For a healthy parenting and relationship dynamic to exist, it’s crucial for both parents to recognize the contributions of the other. But that’s not all. Each parent also needs to let the other know they see and are grateful for everything they do to make the family work. A simple thank you works wonders. And a card, a small gift, or a loving gesture can go a long way toward preventing the pitfalls of the default/back-up dynamic.

3. Teamwork.

To make a good run at life, it helps to be part of a team. As far as parenting goes, it’s important to take a team-first approach from the very beginning. The default/back-up trap usually starts with diaper changing and nighttime feeding and everything stems from there. This period is often the foundation of hard feelings. The parent who changes the most diapers might feel like they are owed something in return, which ultimately leads to resentment. To avoid this, new parents should remember to take a team approach during the early years of their child or children’s lives.

4. Pattern Busting.

Switch it up. Whenever possible, it’s helpful for parents to recognize the habits they’re falling toward. That way they can change them before they become so rote that change is impossible. If one person does most of the cooking, then the other parent should take over—at least once in a while. Or if one parent does all the carpooling, then the other parent should do it on some days—if schedules allow. If one parent helps with all the homework, then the other parent can step in and do it, at least sometimes. If family scheduling makes pattern-busting unfeasible, please refer to (1) and (2) above.

Family Roles and Responsibilities

Making a family work is almost impossible without some sort of division of labor. Parenting roles are real. There’s nothing at all wrong with one parent doing most of the child care and the other parent holding down everything else.

That is, until one parent becomes resentful and carries hard feelings for years and years, or one parent fails to appreciate the work of the other parent.

The default/back-up dynamic is only toxic if the parents are unable to communicate with one another. The good news is that it’s possible to view the default/back-up dynamic like a magician’s ruse. Meaning it can only fool you if you don’t know it’s happening. If you can see it, you can change it. It might take some challenging conversations between spouses or family members. Years of habits may need to be addressed with openness and unpacked with complete honesty. In the end, though, everyone will be happier: parents, children, and the entire family unit.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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