The Importance of Parental Alignment: Getting Together to Help Your Child

May 15, 2017

Whatever the constellation of parental figures involved – two-parent couples, divorced parents, step-parents, single parents, extended family – nothing is more important and perhaps nothing is harder to achieve than cooperation. Your ability to influence your child’s behaviors depends on consistency between the adults involved. Imagine trying to work for two bosses who don’t agree on what you’re supposed to be doing or how to run the company! That’s what it’s like for a child when parents or the adults in their life are not aligned.

Parental alignment is often difficult even in the best of relationships. And If there has been a history of conflict between you or you have different perspectives on how to address issues with your child, the degree of difficulty for cooperation is increased significantly. Then…when you add in the need to address a child’s problematic substance use, the odds of difficulty increase exponentially.

The good news is that you don’t need seamless, one hundred percent agreement. Kids, especially older kids, understand that their parents (or other adults caring for them) are two different people, not parent-bots programmed to agree, and they can handle it. If you are concerned about your child’s substance use it will be more than worth it to find a way to be mostly on the same page with any other adult responsible for their well-being as you try to address it. How can you agree enough that you can create a plan of action that you can both carry out and feel good enough about? A plan that you can both be consistent and supportive of as you try to help your child. For the next couple of months we will be focusing on helping you find some alignment with everyone who has the potential to positively influence your child. Keep coming back if this is an issue you face!

We will start with helping you think through ways to improve your alignment enough to achieve your goal of helping your child. We encourage you to start by asking yourself the following six questions. These questions can help you put your own collaboration history into perspective and help you figure out ways to work towards better alignment and consistency. Here are six questions to ask yourselves:

  1. In general, what is the working relationship between you and your co-parent(s) like?
  2. What is your history in working together? (Have you found ways to support each other even when you disagreed? Have either of you felt undermined?)
  3. How have you disciplined in the past? (Does one of you feel like you have to carry all of the disciplinary load? Does one of you insist on carrying all of the disciplinary load? Is one of you more afraid of disciplining?)
  4. Is there consensus or a big difference of opinion between you about:
    • what the problems are (“it’s a drug problem” vs “it’s an issue of laziness”)
    • the severity of the problems (“how bad it is”) and
    • Ideas about how to address the problems?
  5. Are there aspects of your co-parent’s parenting that you appreciate? (How recently have you let them know that? How often do you acknowledge their efforts?)
  6. How important is it for you to help your child and would you be willing to put aside past differences and your history to work together?

The Hard Part About This

In asking you to answer these six questions, we’re asking you to try and join hands with your child’s other parent or caregiver and get along right when it is hardest to do so: when tensions are high and you’re both stressed out. We encourage you to try and be patient with yourself, and be patient with each other, for the sake of your child and yourselves. If you need outside help finding a way to work together we encourage you to do so.

After answering these questions on your own, it might be helpful to review them with your co-parent. Can you remind each other of ways that you have worked through other issues or problems successfully and identify the things that you each did that contributed to your success? Can you acknowledge each other’s strengths and see which ones would be helpful to facing the problem at hand? For instance, is one of you able to hold a limit without feeling upset? Is one of you more creative in identifying rewards for the behavior you want to see? Is one of you better able to express yourself when you are upset? Try to make note of the strengths you bring to the table rather than the limitations you see in each other.

In the next installment we will give you tools to come up with a plan you can both agree on as you try to help your child. In the meantime, just answering these questions and trying to find each other’s strengths can be really helpful in finding alignment. It is highly likely that your child knows your limitations and areas of conflict and if he is invested in continuing a behavior in spite of your wishes, he may create conflict between the two of you which can distract you from focusing on him (and he may not even be aware he is doing this!). He probably knows which one of you can hold a limit or who can talk through a problem without losing your cool. He is also probably comfortable in different ways with each of you.

We encourage you to remember that there are likely ways each of you can play a role in helping your child want to change. Taking the time to find each other’s strengths and work toward alignment, even the smallest amount will help you, help your child.

For now, see the parental alignment discussion in the 20 minute guide for more concrete ideas about how to address this important issue:

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