In the May edition of the newsletter we started a discussion about developing alignment with your partner/caregiver to achieve more of your goals in helping your child with their substance use choices. We outlined a list of questions about how you historically have collaborated with your co-parent. What have your patterns been in working together? Has one of you tended to be more of the disciplinarian? Has one of you tended to be more distressed or worried than the other? Have you been able to support each other even when you disagreed and are there things you really appreciate about your collaboration?
Now we will discuss a few tools for coming to agreement with a an action plan for helping your child make better behavioral choices. As partners in this effort you are in unique positions to either support or undermine a behavioral plan. We recommend that you take seriously how important it is to try to be aligned in your efforts to help your child.
A great first step is to have a discussion about each of your priorities for your child. Determining the behaviors you most want to address and your goals will be the foundation for helping your child change their relationship to substances. It may seem obvious that your priorities should be for your child to; first, stop using drugs, and second, start being a caring family member again! But when you give it a little more thought, it may be that you have different priorities or you may find that your priorities change depending on other variables in your home. This can make it difficult to be specific about about what your priority is now. For example, wanting your son to stop using drugs might actually come in second to helping him be a caring family member if he has been stealing from his younger brother recently.
As you talk with your co-parent, try to be specific about your priority and the reason behind it and then step back and allow them to do the same. Doing a good job of listening to each other’s priorities can increase empathy and understanding. This is a great time to practice a non-judgemental stance (with each other)! Even if you are not initially in agreement, you will have a better sense of why each of you might be less or more upset about or focused on particular behaviors. In many situations, establishing this understanding and empathy matters more than whether or not your priorities match up. Keep in mind that while it can be really frustrating when your partner does not see things in the way you do, differences in perspective are inevitable and are not necessarily indicative of a failing of your relationship or either of you being wrong in your goals! The good news is that once you understand each other’s perspectives and have empathy for them, you can take turns in targeting different behaviors. One month you might have a plan for reinforcing all positive, caring behaviors your son has with his brother and even offering a concrete reward for a week or month of caring behaviors. Another month you might have a plan targeting the substance use in particular – with reinforcing activities that compete with the substance use and/or establishing consequences for using behaviors. When you are working well together, and are aligned in your plan of action – even if temporary – there will be time for each of your priorities to be addressed.
As you try to become more aligned with your co-parent, it can also be helpful to practice how you will respond if your child tries to split you apart. For example, there may be times when your child confronts you about whether it is really your idea to set this limit/reward this activity/etc when he knows perfectly well that a particular change is more your partner’s priority rather than yours. It can be challenging to respond in a way that is both genuine and also sticking with the alignment goal of supporting your shared plan of action. In these cases, practice ahead of time for how you want to respond. Practice what words you’ll use and role play with your partner to anticipate what your child might say. While role playing a communications can feel pretty silly at first, doing so will help you stay steady when you try to put it into play with your child. A solid response to your child trying to pull you out of alignment might sound something like, “It’s true your mother has gotten more upset about this in the past, but we are together on this right now and you may not be aware of how upset I’ve gotten about this at times too.”
Another tool for finding alignment is to do a good job in managing your own feelings. Parenting a child with substance use problems is incredibly stressful and if you are not taking that stress seriously (i.e., by having an attentive self-care plan: proper sleeping, eating, resting, exercising, etc.), tension and high emotion can leak into your other relationships and cause them harm. Taking good care of yourself and managing your feelings will put you in a better position to come together with your partner in a collaborative way.
Finally, although it is important to present a united front, there is also great value in utilizing each of your strengths. Think through times or situations where one of you might be more equipped to manage the situation effectively Perhaps your partner has been the one to set more of the limits in the past, so it might be good for your child to hear them spelled out by you this time around. Similarly, if the tension in the home is particularly high and you are worried you might cave in, or even go against your stated plan because you are so stressed, it can be a good time for you to ask your partner for help.
Remember, as co-parents you are in unique positions to offer each other support in ways that no one else can really do, since you know your child in ways that others cannot imagine. Try to reinforce each other’s efforts in this project (with attention, praise, gratitude, affection) – as helping your child is very likely your shared goal. Working together and trying your best to stay aligned is one of the best things you can do to reach that goal.
See the parental alignment discussion in the 20 minute guide for more concrete ideas about how to address this important issue: