How to Handle Parenting When One Parent Undermines the Other

Parenting is hard enough without your partner contradicting what you do. Find out how undermining your child's other parent can hurt your kid and how to handle it if it happens to you.

A man and a woman talking to a therapist

We’ve all been there: It’s 9 p.m. on a Friday and Junior needs to get ready for bed. You nudge your kiddo and nod toward the clock. He starts to get up when your partner chimes in and says, “Honey, c’mon. It’s Friday, he can stay up a bit later.”

Junior gleefully flops back onto the couch for another episode of his favorite cartoon – you’ve just been undermined and you’re probably not too happy about it.

Moms and dads of all marital statuses don’t always see eye-to-eye when it comes to parenting the kids, and it can get really frustrating when the other parent steps on your toes, especially in front of the kids, but how you handle the situation when it happens is crucial to your kids and your relationship with their other parent.

Why it happens

For married or co-habitating parents, getting undermined by one another is typically caused when they aren’t on the same parenting page in terms of rules, limits or discipline, Greg Oliver, M.S., a psychologist formerly with Henry Ford Medical Center in Troy explains.

“They could have opposite discipline strategies. One might use a time out and the other might be the kind to spank,” he says. “In a divorce situation, one parent might talk poorly about the other or one parent might enforce different rules.”

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And this sort of back and forth between parents can be confusing and harmful for children.

“Kids grow up more comfortable and more healthy when the environment is predictable and reliable,” he says. “When the same rules are enforced it prevents anxiety because the child can predict what the parent is going to do, no matter which one catches them.”

It also causes spouses to question the strength of their marriage, and for the one being undermined, anxiety over their parenting skills.

“It can cause that parent to doubt themselves and it makes them insecure,” Oliver explains. “Then they’re not going to be as effective parents because they feel like they’re in a helpless situation.”

How to deal

Luckily, there are some ways to combat being undermined by your child’s other parent.

Oliver says that communicating with the other parent about the common goals for your child and using that as a foundation, while avoiding accusations, is a good place to start.

“(If the parents are divorced), I would recommend for the first parent to find some success in their approach or what they’re doing and show the other parent,” he explains. “Married parents should have a conversation away from the kid and discuss the teamwork process. Once they see each other as allies, they can apply the parenting approach together.”

If the issue still doesn’t stop, he says that the parent being undermined should do their best and continue to enforce their ground rules because the child will usually see what’s truly going on.

“It won’t fix the problem but it will increase the odds (of parenting success) if one parent is trying,” he says. “Parents needs to do what is right for the child and the child will see that.”

This post was originally published in 2018 and is updated regularly. 

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3 COMMENTS

  1. So, my wife doesn’t believe in discipline of any sort. When I correct our son she jumps in and undermines me. When I try to get him to sleep at a decent time she says he isn’t tired and he will go to sleep when he is ready. He is 3 yrs old and should be going to sleep at a decent time but lately with her interference he goes to sleep around 3am. What do I do?!

  2. I have disagreements like this all the time. My husband says he is fedup of me contradicting him, but I feel that he is not involved enough to make an informed decision.
    Giving my 3 year old chocolate chip cookies after 6p means she is going to be hyped on sugar to settle down at night.
    Attempting to stop bottles during the day to get her to eat better, he says leave her she will eat when she is ready.
    It is so frustrating.

  3. I have been married to my husband for almost 3 years now. He has 4 teenage daughters from a previous marriage. They were in foster care when I first met him & after we got married, I helped him work a case plan to get them home. They have now been home a little over a year. Their birth mother is using drugs & rarely sees or even speaks with them. They have had no structure nor discipline at any point in their lives. They are capable of doing so much better than what they do (the oldest is 15 & her highest grade in school right now is a 36) I want to be the mom they’ve always deserved, but my husband CONTINUALLY undermines me or completely disagrees with me while the girls are around. He says that’s not what he’s doing, but it certainly is & it truly makes me feel like shit & only encourages them to continue doing/saying whatever I “attempted” to address at that time. I cannot take being completely ignored & basically ran over much more though. I’m at my wits end. I love my husband & I love our girls but what can I do if nothing I do or say matters in this household?!

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