What Do I Do When Important People in My Life Have Different Ideas About Parenting My Child?


Introduction

Different ideas about parenting can occur between you and your spouse or partner, your child’s grandparents and other relatives, a step parent, your child’s teacher, or any other important person in your child’s life. In creating a supportive network for your child, it is likely that at some point you will encounter important people who have different ideas about parenting your child.

This is normal and expected. How you work through these differences can build your skills and your child’s skills in communication, empathy, and problem solving. This document provides guidance on:

  • What to do when important people have different ideas about parenting your child than you do.
  • How to have a conversation about those differences in a way that maintains a positive relationship.
  • Tips for what to do when you find yourself in a high-conflict situation while remembering the underlying goal is to do what is in the best interest of your child.

Differences

As you build a network of important people in your child’s life, you will quickly find that people have different ideas when it comes to parenting. Some of those differences about parenting your child will be small, such as whether your child needs to pick up their toys before bed, whether your child can have snacks before dinner or close to another meal, or whether and how much screen time to allow your child to have.

Other differences will be greater, such as what religious belief to practice, whether to breast or bottle feed, whether to allow your child to have a pacifier when falling asleep, or what holidays to celebrate.

Encountering differences about how to parent your child can be positive. As a parent or one in a parenting role, encountering different ideas about parenting your child can help you

  • learn and grow,
  • see an issue from a new perspective, and
  • deepen trust that you and important people in your child’s life are providing your child with a positive and nurturing experience.

For your child, encountering differences in parenting can help your child to

  • navigate different approaches, ideas, and practices and
  • grow their social and emotional skills like getting along with others, perspective-taking, communication, and problem solving.

While differences in parenting can be positive and provide opportunities for learning and growth, some differences, especially ones that are extremely different from your parenting beliefs and behaviors, can have negative outcomes for both you and your child.

For you, differences can

  • cause conflict and disagreements;
  • cause you to jump to conclusions that may be inaccurate;
  • foster feelings of irritation, anger, stress, and resentment;
  • cloud judgement, preventing you from examining the real issue or separating the issue from the person; and
  • weaken relationships with important people in your child’s life.

For your child, differences, especially unresolved differences, can

  • cause confusion and
  • foster feelings of uncertainty and stress.1

Learning what to do when important people have different ideas about parenting your child is important. With guidance, you can navigate this challenge and, in the process, build your child’s life skills.

Choosing Your Response

When faced with situations where important people have different ideas about parenting your child than you do, you have choices about how to respond. Choices include:

  • Choice #1 – Say nothing. Accept the other person’s ideas and actions and let it go.
  • Choice #2 – Engage in a conversation.

Choice #1

One choice is to say nothing. You can decide that, while you might not agree, you can accept the other person’s ideas and actions. In making this choice, you reach the conclusion that

  • there are many ways to approach a situation or issue;
  • different perspectives can create meaningful dialogue;
  • these differences are not harmful to your child; and
  • this may be an opportunity for you and your child to learn and grow.

Choice #2

Another choice is to decide that the parenting difference is an important and big difference and one that requires a conversation with the important person. In making this choice, you reach the conclusion that without a conversation, this parenting difference may

  • adversely impact your child or another child if they are involved,
  • foster feelings of resentment and anger, and/or
  • negatively impact your relationship with this important other.

Making the decision to have a conversation with an important person about parenting ideas that are different from yours requires intentional communication.

Intentional Communication

You value the relationship with the important person in your child’s life. Intentional communication is a way to have conversations while also strengthening your relationship with those important people.

Intentional communication is a two-way dialogue that includes

  • talking,
  • listening, and
  • spending time to truly understand the other’s point of view.

It’s about “talking with” as opposed to “talking to.” Intentional communication creates a space for learning and encourages curiosity rather than defensiveness. This kind of communication fosters a sense of ownership in the communication because it is more relevant and meaningful and has broad application in many areas of your life. Ultimately, intentional communication can help you develop a mutually beneficial solution where your needs, your child’s needs, and the important person’s needs are met.

How Do You Do Intentional Communication?

Intentional communication includes

  • creating the conditions for intentional communication,
  • listening actively to understand what is being said and the feelings being communicated,
  • using “I-messages,” and
  • apologizing when needed.

Create the Conditions for Intentional Communication

An optimal setting is where both you and the other person can truly hear and learn from each other. Unfortunately, when you feel upset or react, the part of your brain that can listen or learn is not engaged.

To get beyond a place where you are reactive and instead to where your brain can listen and learn, self-regulation skills are needed. You can use empathy and connection with the important person to reach this place.

If the conditions for intentional communication are not created, it is easy to end up with conversations that do not facilitate actual change in behavior and that potentially wear down the relationship. Creating the right conditions fosters positive interactions and models empathy and respect.

Tips to Create the Conditions for Intentional Communication

  • Describe the purpose for the conversation.
    • “I’d like to talk with you about the children’s bedtime routine.”
    • ““I’d like to talk about this upcoming holiday celebration.”
    • “I’d like to see if we might reach a better understanding about when we discipline the children.”
    • “I’d like to talk about how we approach the children when we are upset with them.”
    • “I’d like to have a better understanding of your expectations of me when I take care of your children.”
    • “I’d like to talk with you about why I do/don’t allow my child to have a pacifier to fall asleep.”
    • “I’m curious why you think that way. I’d like to hear more.”
  • Make sure there is enough time available. Find a mutually agreeable time. Don’t start a serious conversation when you or the important other is upset. Make sure the time you have set aside is a priority (no cell phone, no TV, etc.).
    • “What would be the best time for us to talk?”
    • “Do you have time to talk after dinner?”
  • Find a time, if possible, when children are not present. Children have many needs and may unintentionally disrupt an important adult-to-adult conversation.
  • Be mindful of your state of mind and the important other’s state of mind. Your own emotions and current state will influence the way you listen and talk. The other person’s frame of mind also matters. You might need to say, “Let’s take a break from this topic and talk more later tonight.”
  • Start by connecting. Focus on the relationship before the content. You could use an empathic statement like, “You seem really passionate about the way we should handle this situation.” Or you could say, “I appreciate you looking out for the wellbeing of my child.” Or ask an open question like, “Tell me how you are feeling about this.” You could also say, “Thank you so much for offering your ideas. I appreciate you, and I’m glad you’ve given me that suggestion. Let’s talk more about it.”

Listen Actively

Active listening is seeking to truly understand someone. It is a two-part style of listening. First, convey you are listening through your body language (e.g., nodding, eye contact). Second, convey understanding by stating back what you have heard or feelings that have been communicated. If you do not quite understand or need more information, ask open-ended questions. This takes practice to truly listen and understand without placing assumptions or judgment on what is being heard.

Listening actively is important. Active listening:

  • Shows you are genuinely interested in what the other person is saying.
  • Creates a respectful interaction that honors the important other’s thoughts and feelings.
  • Allows you to slow down and suspend assumptions while truly listening to what the important other is saying, feeling, and thinking.

How to Engage in Active Listening

  • Pay attention without distraction. You might say, “Let me turn off the TV and silence my phone.”
  • Be aware of your body language and notice the important other’s body language.
  • Use open-ended questions to invite the important other to tell their story in their own words without leading them in a specific direction.
    • “How does this make you feel?”
    • “Can you describe what happened when you were yelling at the children?”
    • “How can we work together to solve the struggle we seem to be having about when to discipline the children?”
  • Convey understanding by reflecting and re-phrasing what you have heard or feelings that have been communicated.
    • “So, you feel angry?”
    • “You’re saying that…”
    • “It’s like…”
    • “It feels like…”
Tip

Remain calm even when you hear something you don’t like.

Trap

Avoid interrupting, judging (“That’s a bad idea”), and giving advice (“I think you should…” “Why don’t you try…”).

Using “I-Messages”

The purpose of communication is to deliver a message in a way that it can be received. It is more important to deliver less information in a way that the other person can understand than to deliver all the information you wanted all at the same time. Using “I-messages” allows the other person to receive the information without raising defenses.

“I-messages” are about conveying the impact of someone’s actions without blame. Notice the difference between: “You are being so rude yelling like that” and “I feel upset when you yell at the children.”

Put simply, the “I” portion is the impact on you, and the “you” portion is the behavior you noticed. “I-messages” leave out any interpretation of the behavior (like “You did it because you don’t care”). “I-messages” avoid making any guesses about the intention behind the behavior (like “You did it to get your way”).

“I-messages” allow you to express your opinions without eliciting negative reactions.

“I-messages” work well during conflict and build the relationship by not assigning blame.

“I-messages” also build social and emotional skills like communication, constructive conflict negotiation, respect for others, self-discipline, and emotion regulation.

How to Do an “I-Message”

“I-messages” usually contain three parts: my feeling / your behavior / the impact. For example, “I feel terribly stressed (my feeling) / when you yell at the children (your behavior) / I keep thinking about how badly they must feel being yelled at (the impact).” Including these three parts in the message is very different from a message like, “You are so disrespectful when you yell at the children like that.”

You can also add additional details about how you interpret the behavior (the story you tell about the behavior). For example, “I feel angry when you yell at the children. When I hear you yell at the children, the story in my head is that you don’t respect them or me. Help me correct my story.” This is very different from “You are so inconsiderate” or “You are rude.”

Tip

Value yourself and your ideas. Be authentic. Respond calmly and consistently. Make sure the environment is conducive to conversation. Make sure your expectations are appropriate. Use language that is straightforward and simple.

Trap

Avoid starting with “I” to couch a “you” statement. For example, “I feel that you are being rude.” Instead, say “I feel hurt when you raise your voice.”

Tip

Talk often. Conversations about parenting are important and much can be learned from one another. Sharing stories about parenting, struggles, and challenges can lead to insights and new learning. Talking with important people in your child’s life about parenting can also make it easier when difficult situations and differences arise.

Apologize

Taking responsibility or admitting when you are wrong is excellent modeling and demonstrates vulnerability and a willingness to grow. Being able to apologize sends the message that making mistakes is part of learning and getting better. It not only creates an environment where it is okay to “fail,” it establishes behavioral norms that we take responsibility for our actions. Apologizing strengthens the relationship you have with the important person and provides you with an opportunity for reflection.

Tips on How to Apologize:

  • Be genuine – apologize for what you truly mean.
  • Start with “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” and be specific for what you are apologizing.
  • Do not use “if”; use “that” instead. For example, rather than, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings,” say “I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings.
  • Don’t make excuses or apologize in a way that blames the other person. This is not an apology: “I’m sorry for yelling, but when you say things like that, I have to yell.
  • Keep it short and stop talking to let the other person respond.

Still Struggling to Find Common Ground About Parenting? Is the Difference in Parenting Causing Conflict? Is the Conflict Escalating?

Intentional communication is a style of communicating that increases the likelihood that your needs, your child’s needs, and the important other’s/person’s needs are met. However, sometimes you might find that you and an important person can’t seem to find common ground about parenting. The difference in parenting is causing conflict, and that conflict is escalating. Now what?

In high conflict situations, your response needs to become one of managing the relationship by managing your own thoughts and behaviors with your child’s best interests at the forefront of your decision making and actions. While it isn’t likely you will be able to change the other person, you can influence the situation by changing yourself. Here are a few actions to manage yourself in high conflict situations.

Actions to Manage Yourself in High Conflict Situations

  • Keep the goal in mind – you want what is best for your child. This important goal can help you keep perspective when faced with challenging and conflictual situations. When faced with a conflictual situation, ask yourself, “What is the desired outcome of this communication? In what ways can I communicate that will produce a positive outcome for my child?”
  • Notice, name, and accept your feelings. Notice what you are honestly feeling and name it: “I’m angry and frustrated about this situation.” Accepting those feelings instead of fighting them can be a relief. And then, if you want to change what you are feeling, you can take action toward change.
  • Be thoughtful about your response. It takes a lot of restraint to think through what you want to say before you say it. Consider what is helpful in this situation.
  • If your conversation isn’t getting anywhere and you are feeling frustrated, stop the conversation. You could say, “We are both really passionate about this topic. Let’s take a break and revisit the issue tomorrow when both of us have had some time to calm down and think about it.” Or, you could say, “I am feeling really frustrated right now. I am going to take a break from this conversation and go on a walk to calm myself down. When I get back, we can decide how we want to move forward.”
  • If communication with the important person has the potential to escalate or become dangerous, establish safe barriers for communication such as through email, co-parenting software, meeting in a public space, or another means of communication that will ensure everyone’s safety.
  • Seek professional help if needed. Parenting is both rewarding and challenging. It is okay to ask for help.
Tip

Looking for more tips and actions to navigate high conflict with important people in your child’s life? Visit Navigating High Conflict With Important People in Your Child’s Life.

Closing

Differences about parenting can occur between you and any important person in your child’s life. It is likely, in creating a supportive network for your child, that you will encounter important people who have different ideas about parenting your child than you do.

Throughout this document, there are opportunities to build your skills to work through these differences, maintain a positive relationship with the important people in your child’s life, and ultimately do what is in your child’s best interest.

References

[1] McIntosh, J. (2003). Enduring Conflict in Parental Separation: Pathways of Impact on Child Development. Journal of Family Studies, 9(1), 63–80.
Recommended Citation: Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2020). What Do I Do When Important Others Have Different Ideas About Parenting? Retrieved from https://www.ParentingMontana.org.
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