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When parents aren’t on the same page: ‘Mixed messages’

As I’ve said many times before, being a parent is the most difficult job in the world and there is no rule book. For most mums and dads it is simply a matter of doing the best that they can with the resources they have at the time, a bit of ‘trial and error’ and hoping that at the very least, their kids come out at the end relatively unscarred.

When I am asked what I believe are the most important elements of good parenting as far as alcohol and other drugs is concerned I would have to say the following:

  • rules, consequences bound in unconditional love
  • developing and keeping lines of communication open as effectively as possible
  • no ‘mixed messages’

The ‘no mixed messages’ can often be the most difficult, particularly in regards to both parents being ‘on the same page’ as to what those messages are going to be. Even in families where parents have very similar values there can often be disagreement on issues such as teens and parties. For example, Dad may believe his 15 year old little girl is far too young to stay over at a friend’s house for a party, while the mother may see it as a great opportunity for her once shy daughter to spread her wings a little and become a little more social. Both of them love their daughter deeply and want her to stay safe but this slight difference in perspective can cause a tiny crack in their (up to that point) united parenting messaging and it won’t take long for the teen to take advantage of the situation!

A couple of weeks ago I met a couple who were really struggling with their 17 year-old daughter. Essentially they were at the point where if they were not careful they were going to lose contact with the girl altogether. She was attending school and was fully functioning in that environment but would leave the house in the evenings and over the weekend without informing her parents where she was going, who she was with and when she would be home. She refused to answer her mobile when they called to find out if she was okay and would arrive at home at all hours (if she came home at all). They had no idea who her friends were and they had been informed by her that they were ‘psycho parents’. You could actually see the terror on the mother’s face – she was so frightened for her daughter and what could happen to her … every little thing that was happening in the home was adding to her distress and causing greater conflict.
Unfortunately it took me a very short time to realize that the greatest problem that this couple was facing was that they simply weren’t on the same page on how to deal with this issue. The mother was wanting to try to fix each individual problem – nothing could be allowed to get away from her, while the father was much more of the thinking that she was 17, four weeks away from her Year 12 exams and they should let the small things go and just try to stay connected. There was a massive divide between the two and if I saw it in the first five minutes of our conversation their daughter was certainly aware of it and almost certainly using it to her advantage (and most probably had been for some time).

‘Mixed messages’ is usually one of the most significant problem that you find in split families – with one parent often made out to be the ‘rule maker’ by the other who then attempts to be more popular by being more lenient in terms of rules and boundaries. In my experience you usually find that the more lenient parent tends to be the one who has the least contact with the child (although that certainly isn’t always the case), believing that they have so little time with their child that they want to avoid as much conflict as possible. Young people take advantage of the situation and set one up against the other in an attempt to make sure they get want they want …

That said, ‘manipulation’ (and that’s what it is and aren’t adolescents so good at it?) is certainly not unique to split families. It’s only natural that parents are going to have different views on how to handle particular parenting decisions on a day-to-day basis, whether they are living together or apart. No matter how good your relationship is with your partner and how similar your views are on the basics, there are always going to be differences of opinion on how to deal with the questions your son or daughter throws you … no matter what you do, however, it is important that you do not undermine your partner’s authority by a throwaway line that you didn’t think through properly.

It is incredibly important that parents make decisions on where they stand on such ‘big ticket items’ such as whether or not you permit them to drink alcohol or what your rules on sleepovers are going to be and once the decision has been made a unified front needs to be established. No matter how your son or daughter twists and turns things, whether they come to one or the other of you and tells you that the other has given permission, you must stand firm – the decision has been made and things won’t change until another discussion has been had between you and your partner. As already said, teens are masters of manipulation and unfortunately once they’ve had any success in this department it can become a habit and get completely out of control.

But it’s the little things that can be really problematic – the casual request that gets thrown at you from the back of the car when you’re driving them to school (e.g., “Everyone’s going to Jane’s house on Friday after school and then they’re catching the train into the city to see a movie. Can I go?”) that you’re simply not prepared for. There’s no mention of a party or a gathering per se, alcohol doesn’t seem to be involved and there’s no request to stay at someone’s house overnight and so it doesn’t fit into any of the categories that you have made decisions on – what do you say? Let’s make it clear, it’s highly likely that the activity and the question have been carefully planned to avoid any of the rules that have been set and that’s just the point (I know I make adolescents sound incredibly calculating here but if you could hear some of the things students tell me they have done to get what they want your toes would curl!). They may also try to throw these questions at you when others are around or you are in the middle of doing something hoping that you’ll answer quickly and without really thinking it through in an effort to get rid of them!

My advice to parents in this type of situation is simple – never give an ‘off-the-cuff’ answer to what may appear to be an ‘off-the-cuff’ question! The best way to answer this type of question is to inform your teen that you are going to have to discuss this with your partner and a decision will be made by the two of you – that’s how things are done in your family. I can pretty well guarantee they are not going to like the answer but it’s the best one you can give … Teens will test boundaries (that’s their job!) and they will try to get a win with one (no matter how small) and set one up against the other. If they can even sniff an inconsistent or mixed message they will use it to their advantage!

This quote from a US website illustrates the importance of parents being on the same page and having consistent messaging:

“Raising a child is like building a house – when the foundation has cracks, you will face one problem after another until the whole thing comes crashing down. Part of the foundation of child rearing is parental authority. If someone is undermining a parent’s authority – whether it is the other parent or a grandparent, friend or other relative, this undermining can unleash a domino effect-like chain of problems, which can plague a child into adulthood.” 

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