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The Importance of Parental Unity When Raising Teens

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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Parenting experts often say it’s important to keep a united front in front of children. That means parents should back each other up, even when they disagree.

Let’s look at an example:

Your adolescent comes home past curfew, reeking of marijuana. Your teen knows using marijuana is against family rules, yet it’s the second it’s happened in a month. If your spouse is a tough love type parent, they may want to dole out a harsh punishment. They tell your child they’re grounded and take away the car keys and phone.

You, on the other hand, may be a softie – and may be tempted to protest when you hear your spouse instituting these harsh punishments. You may argue to let it go.

The experts are clear on this topic:

Don’t argue to let it go.

Psychotherapist Dr. Charles Fay, PhD, author of the Parenting with Love and Logic series, a renowned child and adolescent expert, says it’s vital to back your spouse up in front of your children. Yes, even if you don’t think they’re right. Resist the temptation to side with your child. You need to side with your spouse. Dr. Fay says that adolescents feel secure when their parents support each other, even if the parenting approach isn’t perfect.

Disclaimer: This advice does not apply to abuse. If your spouse physically or verbally abuses your child, then step in to protect your child. Do not wait. Address and/or report the abuse immediately.

Why Present a Unified Front?

Lack of parental unity causes problems in children.

One mental health issue it can cause is anxiety. When parental reactions become unpredictable, teens become unsure of the structure or rules of the house. Adolescents learn they cannot count on their parents feeling similarly about them.  This can all exacerbate their anxiety or the problematic behaviors they engage in.

Additionally, teens may learn to appeal to the permissive parent each time there’s a confrontation about their behavior. Adolescents may then continue with the unwanted behavior, since they think the laid-back parent will back them up.

Consequences of Parental Disagreement

In his book Working with High-Risk Adolescents: An Individualized Family Therapy Approach, author Mathew Selekman, LCSW, writes that lack of parental unity is often associated with high-risk behaviors in adolescence.

“Often in families with seriously acting-out adolescents with chronic behavioral difficulties, there is a lack of parental unity and teamwork, which is contributing to the maintenance of the presenting problems,” Selekman writes.

He adds that parents of teens who abuse substances often disagree – heavily – on “how best to resolve their kids’ difficulties.”

The Effect of Parental Conflict

In general, parental conflict has negative consequences for children. The worse the conflict gets, the more mental health or behavioral issues the child may exhibit. Research shows that adolescents may develop psychosomatic symptoms, feel an “internal loyalty conflict,” and may distance themselves from both parents altogether.

In fact, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Volume V (DSM-5) includes these symptoms in a new condition called child affected by parental relationship distress (CAPRD). This new diagnosis appears in the section “Other Conditions That May Be a Focus of Clinical Attention.”

Research shows that examples of situations that may result in CAPRD include violence between parents, a high-conflict divorce, and even “unfair disparagement of one parent by another.”

Family Therapy and Parental Support

This is one reason family therapy and parental support is vital for teens with mental health, substance use, or behavioral issues. Family therapy helps parents learn how to effectively set boundaries and communicate with their children, while parental support teaches spouses how to unite as a team.

If your teen struggles with mental health or behavioral issues, professional support can help. Consider looking for a residential treatment center (RTC), partial hospitalization program (PHP), or intensive outpatient program (IOP) that incorporates family therapy and parent training. Best practices for the treatment of youth and adolescents include parent and family involvement. Treatment that focuses on the child only and does not include parents or address family dynamics is incomplete and leaves out a critical element that can increase the likelihood of treatment success.

This article is not a substitute for professional therapy or couples counseling.

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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