Collaboration matters a lot. You may think we’re talking about collaboration with your child (which is important); but no, we’re talking first about collaboration with your spouse/partner/co-parent. When your child is struggling with substances or other behavior problems, there is often a communication breakdown between the adults, and tension builds about how to manage the problems on a day-to-day basis. That makes sense — we are all more likely to get tense, not be at our best, struggle to not get defensive, when we are most emotionally distressed, and when we are in situations that we don’t know how to control or navigate.
It’s natural, then, that when parents are trying to help their child change risky behaviors, they sometimes become what we call “misaligned,” or out of sync with each other. Think about what can happen even under the best of circumstances: your partner (in your humble opinion) is too much of a softie when it comes to making sure the kids get to bed at a reasonable hour, do their homework, eat their vegetables; your partner (sooo unfairly!) wishes you would relax a little and have some fun with the kids, and step out of being rigid with them about things such as curfew, homework, chores. Given that it’s pretty normal for couples to be on different pages when it comes to “easier” parenting issues such as homework and TV watching, it’s really easy to get polarized around how to handle your child when he or she is abusing alcohol or drugs!
First, it is important to give clear directions and consequences (positive and negative) to your child in helping him or her get refocused in a more positive direction. The changes you will be asking your child to make are not easy, and he or she will be ambivalent (or even angry) about making them. It’s hard for a teenager or young adult to change some of their friends, or not be high at parties, or leave evening events earlier than others, or not have pot to give out when it made you really popular. The more ambivalent your child is, the more important it is to have your expectations be totally clear. When each parent has different expectations it is the opposite of a clear message.
Second, the more agreement you can reach with your partner about expectations, the less stressed you will each feel, the happier you will be, and the more likely you both are to be able to be consistent as well as positive with your child. Both of those are important.
By the way, collaboration and alignment with your partner doesn’t mean across-the-board agreement at all times. It depends on the age of your child, but can be quite flexible. For younger children (ages 12-14), a more “unified” front is probably less confusing. For a 17 year old, who lives somewhat in the adult world and knows that uniform agreement is not reality, your approach can be different. Here alignment can can mean that you and your partner understand what you agree on and what you don’t — but you have an agreed upon “policy” none-the-less. For example, you might say: “Your father and I have a slightly different feeling about this, but we’ve decided it’s important for you to be home by midnight in any case.” Here you can acknowledge differences, but still be in “alignment” on your expectations.
There are many ways to start the process of becoming more of a team with your partner.
To get the ball rolling here is a list of 5 options that we know parents have tried and found helpful. None of these are a quick fix for everlasting harmony; however, each option can be useful in terms of getting less polarized, feeling more connected with your partner and getting practice working as a team:
- Spend an hour with your partner this week coming up with a plan for how to handle it when/if your child comes home under the influence (thinking about it and planning in advance can help you avoid common pitfalls).
- Spend an hour with your partner this week NOT talking about your child or any problems (especially useful if you are finding that this is all you talk about anymore.)
- Let your partner’s idea for a consequence for your child’s behavior be the one you try this week (especially useful if you are finding yourself stuck in role of “bad cop.”)
- Let your partner know that you will be the one to dole out consequences this week if needed (useful if you are the “softie.”)
- Make an effort to let your partner know one thing he does each day that you appreciate (useful when you are misaligned to do things to rebuild a sense of good will and togetherness…this will help you get through the more challenging times.)