One of the most important skills for parents to learn in trying to help a substance using child is how to work together! Over and above the issue of “what is our game plan?” (which takes collaboration also!), getting on the same page involves a lot of practice for parents. Typically, one parent is viewed as the “softie” while the other is seen as the “strict” one. Challenges in follow-through for the “softie” include things like maintaining a limit once it’s been agreed upon (“but it makes our daughter feel so left out by her friends”), and enforcing a consequence without deflecting blame to the other parent (“your mother thinks it’s important…”). Challenges in follow through for the “strict” parent include not blowing their stack when the “bad” behavior occurs again (“I told you he would lie to us anyway”!), and (also) not blaming the other parent in the face of a setback.
As behavioral therapists we can assure you, practice matters! You are learning (just as your child is), and learning takes practice. And more practice. And missteps, and then more practice. Here is what you need to practice, and keep practicing in the area of collaboration:
- Agreeing that being a team is crucial. This will take discussion and review of how things typically go when you are not in agreement, as a way to clarify and understand the importance of a unified approach. Also helpful is to discuss, clarify and prioritize the overarching goal of helping shift your child’s behavior most effectively, as opposed to “getting your own way”.
- Problem solving skills. It couldn’t be more critical for parents to have these skills to get better at collaboration. You absolutely will NOT always be in agreement about approach: use your problem solving skills to figure out the common ground approach. These are specific skills that you can look at on our website.
- Identifying where “holes in the bucket” will be, for example, a limit that will be hard for one of you to enforce, obstacles to sticking to the agreed upon plan, where temptations to veer off course will likely arise etc. The more you can foretell and problem-solve these, the better things will go. Don’t be afraid to anticipate problems.
- Being very clear about what the limit/consequence/rewards should be and will be for given behaviors. This truly takes practice, because often there has been less-than-clear decision making between parents about goals. That’s fine, but practicing establishing clear expectations and consequences (both positive and negative) is a critical part of collaboration going forward.
- Helping each parent tolerate their adolescent’s negative responses to these new expectations and collaboration (e.g. “mom’s making you do this…I know you really think I should be able to go out tonight”,” or “you’re only being nice because dad told you too”, etc)
- Expressing empathy for the other parent’s position. It’s tough compromising, especially when the stakes feel so high. Being able to pause and acknowledge your partners view, truly empathizing and understanding the way this is a struggle for them, helps tremendously in moving towards collaboration rather than becoming more polarized (see this post about parent collaboration).
- Getting better at what is unfamiliar by doing role plays. Despite how awkward or silly it can feel, try doing some role playing. Play ALL different roles in the setting of limits, in the meting out of consequences: yourself, each other, your child. This is EXTREMELY useful in increasing awareness of where misalignment will occur, what will be really hard to do, to hear from your child in response, what will derail one or both of you. As part of this, you will be practicing communication with each other and problem solving before discussing these decisions with your child.
Collaboration is no small feat to achieve, and even harder in real time when the stakes are high (and the emotions are running deep). It’s worth the work.