A common problem seen in family therapy is when one parent is lenient and the other parent strict. This typically starts quite young, and the child quickly learns which parent to seek out for more latitude in their actions and decisions. Over time these parents become more divided, with each countering the other’s extreme strictness or extreme cuddling/enabling.
Marriages can fail in part because of this divisive pattern and the inability of couples to work as a team. Although this splitting of roles is problematic at any stage, it becomes more damaging and divisive at late adolescence and even into the young adult years. With one couple I saw, the father, in this case an enabler, was ready to move out with his sixteen-year-old son because of the level of conflict between the parents over the parent’s rules and consequences. This dysfunctional pattern not only risks the marriage but ends up creating adolescents or young adults who learn how to divide and conquer and manipulate to get what they want.
Splitting Roles and the Young Adult
The ways this splitting of roles is expressed with young adults is often in terms of privileges, freedoms, and support parents provide. If the young adult is living at home, arguments may occur over expectations (for example, get a job) of the young adult and consequences for not meeting them. If the young adult is out of the home, money and helping the young adult out with loss of job, failure at school, or drug abuse problems can accentuate the divide between such parents.
What Can Parents Do?
Here are some practical tips to consider:
- Acknowledge that each parent must perform both roles of unconditional love and discipline. Splitting these roles is unhealthy.
- As much as possible, agree upfront about the rules and expectations of the house and promise to stick with them whether the other parent is present or not when these are challenged.
- When a conflict arises with the young adult, it is best to take a timeout from any discussion of this issue with the young adult, conference together privately, and come up with a compromise position. Then both parents need to present it to the young adult and stand behind it.
More help on this subject is available in a book available on the website titled Supportive Integrity: Parenting Young Adults with Love and Backbone.