BY Alair Olson, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist

“The best security blanket a child can have is parents who respect each other.” –Jane Blaustone

I want to look at why it can be so difficult to feel unified with your co-parent (regardless of whether you are in a romantic relationship with that person or not).  There are two parts that make up this struggle:  the “parent” side, and the “partner” side.  Let’s take a look at the “parent” side first.

In her book Raising Parents, Patricia McKinsey Crittenden writes, “Parents are children’s primary attachment figures and, as such, they function to promote children’s survival and well-being as well as to prepare children to become attachment figures to their own children.  As with any primary attachment figure, they are irreplaceable…and more dedicated to their children than are any substitutes” (p. 3).

I believe that 99.99% of parents care deeply and fiercely about protecting, preserving, and caring for their children’s well-being.  These parents desperately want their children to grow up into mature, responsible, rational, and thriving adults.  They inherently know the weight of being a parent and the love they hold for their children.

And I also believe that when 99.99% of parents see their children misbehave, act inappropriately, or do dangerous things, their care for their children turns into a frantic fear that can cover up our best intentions.

“If my child keeps acting this way, will s/he end up homeless and using drugs?”

“If my child doesn’t learn that being aggressive is wrong, I’m so afraid s/he will turn out to be some horrible person who winds up in jail.”

“If my child hangs out with these people, what will s/he become?  How will other people see her/him?”

The list goes on and the fear takes over.  And as the fear takes over, parents often become more strict, more controlling, more aggressive, more adamant, more checked out, or more demanding.  Good intentions that become hidden behind behavior.  And all that kids see is parents’ behavior, and usually that means that kids keep acting out in defiance, hiding, aggression, and more.  (This starts a vicious cycle that makes things feel even worse.)

When the fear takes over, kids are not the only ones who are affected; your co-parent is affected as well.  My guess is that when your co-parent sees the behavior (control, demands, checking out, etc.), then s/he responds in a certain way.

My encouragement is to spend some time reflecting on your “parent” side:

– When I see my child misbehave/act out, what does my fear tell me?

– What is my heart’s intention for my child in that moment?  What is my “parent’s care and concern” saying to me?

– How do I let my fear take over?  What does my behavior look like in that moment?

– How can I let my care and concern be known, rather than my fear?

Now let’s look at the “partner” side.

Research shows that one of the best predictors of a child’s overall health and well-being is the relationship between that child’s parents.  This is true regardless of whether parents are married, separated, divorced, or have some other kind of relationship.  I have worked with many children and teens who feel anxious, depressed, angry, traumatized, or scared because their parents argue in front of them, tell them to keep secrets, unload emotional burdens onto them, or make transitions from one house to the other just plain miserable.

I understand that marriages and romantic relationships can hold a lot of hurt, pain, and strife.  Your co-parent may have done, said, or caused serious damage, or perhaps you made decisions that you regret.  To me, it makes perfect sense why parents have such a hard time trusting one another, communicating with each other, and making decisions together.

However, the stakes are high here; the ability to co-parent well is for the sake of your child.

My guess is that when your co-parent makes a parenting decision that seems too harsh, or too lenient, or too [fill-in-the-blank], both “parent” and “partner” sides of you react.  The “partner” side might have one of these internal monologues:

– “Oh there he goes again!  Why does he have to talk to the kids the same way he talks to me?  I know how much that hurts!”

– “She’s letting the kids walk all over her again.  Now I have to be the bad guy and do everything.”

– “He never follows through on what we decided about consequences.  I guess I still can’t trust him for anything.”

– “When will she stop worrying so much about the kids?  Great – one more thing for her to nag me about.”

In each of these examples (and many others I’ve heard in my office), there is genuine concern for kids and how they are being raised/disciplined.  However, there is also a strong hint of some relationship dynamics that are inextricably linked to parenting dynamics.

I encourage you to reflect on the following questions regarding your “partner” side:

– When I see my co-parent respond to our child in a way I don’t like, what happens in me?  (i.e. What are my first gut-reactions/thoughts/feelings?)

– What am I most fearful of in these situations regarding my co-parent?  What am I most concerned about regarding our relationship?

– What does my behavior look like as I respond to my co-parent?

– How can I let my care and concern be known, rather than my fear?

My hope is that in learning to land on the same parenting page as your co-parent, you are able to:

– Know that the struggle is real for so many parents (about 99.99%)

– Honor your “parent” side instincts to love, protect, and care for your child

– Acknowledge that your “partner” side has a voice during parenting struggles

– Consider how you want your “parent” and “partner” sides to come across to those closest to you


In this together,