This one is hot off the press, and if you read this blog long enough, you will undoubtedly learn many more of the creative ways in which child clients inform me of this tightly held belief:
My parents are whacked. Dharma, age 15
No one will be surprised that I hear some version of this several times a week. The kids who share this sentiment vary in age, diagnosis, gender, etc. Still, there is only a handful of reasons children believe their parents are whacked or crazy or irrational or psycho. Dharma’s comment reflects her frustration over her parents’ seeming inability to agree about the rules of the household. She frequently finds herself uncertain about whose rule to follow, so she does what any self-respecting teenager would do; she follows the rule that suits her best in the moment. This sometimes results in conflict between Dharma and one parent or the other, and often in conflict between her mother and father.
If there is a single most basic rule of parenting with a partner, whether the partner is a spouse or a relative, it is this: Parenting partners need to present a united front about rules and expectations. For the sake of simplicity, I will talk in this post about parents, but the rule applies to any household in which two or more adults are sharing responsibility for child-rearing.
In case the name wasn’t a give-away, Dharma’s parents are grown-up flower children. On the parenting continuum, Dad falls at the very laid-back end. Mom, who tends to be a worrier, tries to be laid back, but feels better with firm limits in place. They believe that they have raised a level-headed daughter who does not need to be micro-managed. I agree; Dharma deserves a great deal of freedom because she behaves responsibly virtually all the time. Still, there are times when even level-headed youngsters need limits, and when limits are set, it is essential that Mom and Dad be on the same page.
The particular incident Dharma and I were discussing the day she informed me that her parents are whacked involved a situation in which Mom and Dad were not on the same page; in fact, they may not have been reading the same book. Dharma was invited to a party at the house of a friend her parents do not know. Knowing that Mom and Dad do not agree on the rules about parties, she waited until the last minute, when she knew her mother would be teaching a class, to ask her father if she could go. Predictably, Dad said she could go to the party without gathering any further information. “I trust you,” he had told Dharma. Mom was upset when she found out that her 15-year-old daughter was at a party hosted by some unknown friend in some unknown location with some unknown way to get home. At 11pm, when Dharma still wasn’t home and wasn’t answering her cell phone, Mom was both frantic and incensed. When Dharma finally called her Dad’s cell at 12:15am to ask if she could spend the night at a friend’s house, Mom grabbed the phone from Dad, asked Dharma where she was, and drove to the friend’s house to pick her daughter up. A major fight erupted between Dharma (who felt she had done nothing wrong because she had Dad’s permission to go to the party and it’s not her fault the music was so loud she couldn’t hear her phone ring), Dad (who felt he had done nothing wrong because nothing bad had happened), and Mom (who felt both her daughter and her husband had behaved irresponsibly and with complete disregard for basic rules of safety and for her feelings). According to Dharma, she had acknowledged her misdeeds and had apologized to her parents pretty quickly during the argument and had gone to bed around 1am. This incident had happened several days before our session, and Mom and Dad were still arguing about it. What Dharma thought was “whacked” about the whole situation was her parents inability or unwillingness to find a mutually agreeable limit to set.
Parents do not aways agree on child-rearing. Why would they? They come from different families with different values and different parenting practices. Sometimes they come from entirely different cultures. Many couples can’t agree on less emotionally laden issues such as budgets and chores; it would be unrealistic to expect them always to agree on how best to raise a child. Even when I work with parents in therapy, I never establish an expectation that they will agree all the time. I set the expectation that when parents disagree about what is best in a given situation, they still need to come to a mutual agreement about how to handle it. Once such an agreement is reached, it is essential that both commit to follow through with whatever was agreed upon.
With Dharma and her parents in my office, we processed the party incident. After all three had shared their points of view, I asked the family what would need to change so that similar situations could be avoided in the future. Dharma piped up immediately and said that her parents needed to decide what the rules are going to be and stick to them. Dharma said that. Not Mom. Not Dad. Out of the mouths of babes.
My first response was “Really, Dharma? Because if your parents get on the same page, then you have a lot less wiggle room. There will be no calling your dad when you want permission to do something your mom won’t allow.” Dharma’s response? “Well, at least there will be a lot less fighting.”
After Mom and Dad got over their initial surprise at Dharma’s response, our work became clear. Together, we needed to find a way to capture all that was great about Mom and Dad’s perspectives and parenting practices and to meld them into a mutually agreeable set of rules and expectations for Dharma. Once parents understand how important this is, it is usually not that difficult to shift them from my-way-is-best to our-way-is-best. For example, Dharma’s parents came to agreement fairly easily about the party rules. They agreed that they can trust Dharma to determine which parties are safe to attend and that she would be required to give her parents all the details: name of host, address and phone number of party location, and a specific plan about how she will get to and from the gathering. In addition, they agreed that plans to stay overnight with a friend would have to be made before the party and not during or after it.
Dharma’s parents are not whacked. Most parents aren’t, at least not most of the time. It’s natural for kids, especially teens, to question their parents’ wisdom. It’s also natural for them to use rifts between parents to their advantage. The only effective way for parents to prevent this is to close the loopholes by coming to agreement about rules and expectations. Coming to agreement may be hard work on the front end, but the payoff for parents who stand united will be well worth the effort.
[Names and potentially idenitfying information have been changed.]