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How to Parent a Teen When You Have an Uncooperative Spouse

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 Meet The Team >

There are many reasons why you may not have a spouse who’s on the same page as you, parenting-wise. Our parenting philosophies tend to stem from the way we were parented ourselves. So you might be the strict parent, who consistently enforces rules and consequences, while your husband is the laid-back type who throws those rules out the window. Or he might be more distant, and you’re the affectionate, warm, fuzzy type. There are many permutations that are possible.

Separation or divorce brings with it a whole new set of challenges. Your spouse might not agree with your parenting choices and actively take steps to counter them, which can be extremely frustrating. Or he/she might simply not care. There are also instances in which one spouse aligns themselves with the child, while the other spouse is left alone. Obviously, this creates an unhealthy family dynamic.

Whatever the situation, it’s difficult to parent a teen with a spouse who’s uncooperative or unwilling to join your bandwagon. It gets even harder when that teen is struggling with behavioral, mental health, or substance use issues. What happens when your teenage son is cursing and swearing at you, and your spouse doesn’t take your side? Or when your adolescent daughter wants to get a tattoo, a new phone, or something else you’re prohibiting—and she just runs off to your spouse, who acquiesces?

Dr. Charles Fay, PhD, a child and adolescent psychotherapy expert and author of the Parenting with Love and Logic series, says “kids don’t need carbon-copy parents … as long as their parents agree to live by some basic guidelines.”

Here is a summary of the four tips he offers to parents who have opposing parenting approaches:

  1. Back each other up.
    Even if you don’t agree with the way your spouse handles a specific scenario, follow through with their approach until you get a chance to discuss the situation later on. For example, let’s say your 17-year-old daughter came home past curfew one night. Your husband is furious, and confronts her as soon as she walks through the door. “You’re grounded,” he tells her, and takes away her phone. Your daughter starts crying and turns to you. Now is not the time to take her side. Present a united front and support your spouse on this one, even if you think he’s being a little too strong. Once the punishment is over, you can talk to him about his approach and discuss being a little less harsh next time. When your husband sees that you were on his side this time, he’ll be more likely to take your side later on. Supporting each other as a couple is more important than implementing perfect parenting strategies, says Dr. Fay. (Of course, if your spouse is being abusive towards a child, do not support him/her in the abuse. Report the abuse and seek professional help.)
  2. Don’t talk negatively about your spouse in front of your teen.
    It’s unpleasant for your kids to have to hear you vent about how “uncooperative” or “stubborn” your spouse (or ex-spouse) is being. They’ll get stuck in an awkward situation where they’ll feel obligated to take sides. It also means they can use this information to manipulate one parent against the other when they’re upset. In general, it’s not healthy for kids to know that their parents are fighting. If you have a problem with your spouse, talk to them directly. And if you know it will be a heated discussion, take the call when the kids aren’t listening.
  3. Explain to your kids that everyone is different.
    That includes their parents. When they reach the teenage years, kids can understand that their parents are distinct people with different personalities and upbringing. This makes it easier for them to understand why, for instance, Mom doesn’t care if they watch TV on a school night but Dad does. Or Mom doesn’t like certain school friends, and Dad doesn’t seem to mind them.
  4. Don’t nag, just model.
    If your spouse is not cooperating with you on a specific parenting approach, don’t bug them about it every day. Do what you have to do. Model the behavior. Show your spouse how much happier you are with your teen. When your spouse sees all this, they’re more inclined to take your lead and follow this approach themselves. When they do implement the strategy (in however small of a way), thank them for it.

Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be a substitute for professional therapy or couples counseling. If your spouse or partner is abusive, please get professional help.

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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