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.

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.”

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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18 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?!

    • Leave if she won’t stop undermining you. My wife did this for 26 years and I finally walked away. You are being the reasonable parent who wants to help his child. Your wife is enabling his negative behavior and it won’t stop…ever. It will continue to get worse until you have familial dysfunction and chaos. My 19 year old son is an entitled brat who’s unruly, an addict and his mother just recently enabled his drug use!!! He’s dysfunctional mainly bc of her enabling and her manufactured chaos related to it. It’s a sign she doesn’t respect you and you need to leave so you can be that healthy strong male role model for your son so he doesn’t end up like my son. You can’t do that with both hands tied behind your back. Like I said leave so you don’t make the same mistake I did and stay with a disrespectful spouse.

  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.

    • I have the same problem with my husband as well. He gave the kids chocolate before bedtime and I simply asked him not to because of cavities and having trouble falling asleep from too much sugar. He blows up every time and yells at me and labels me as a controlling person. I am exhausted with parenting 4 children alone, on top of him constantly undermining my parental skills.

  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?!

    • Seriously…leave. If you do, he will either see the error in his ways, genuinely apologize and then patent as a team or he will continue acting like a friend to his children. If he does not change, respect yourself enough to walk away permanently bc you deserve better. Don’t allow his disrespect in undermining you in front of them…not ever. Once you set that boundary, follow through with the consequence you laid out, which should be leaving. Then if you return, make it clear that if it happens again that you will file for a separation and a divorce. If you stay under these conditions, you will be eventually scapegoated to your children and others outside the fanily i.e. smear campaigns. A spouse who can undermine their spouse in this way, (who’s the reasonable and healthy parent) is untrustworthy. The healthy “truthteller” such as yourself in a dysfunctional family is usually scapagoated as the source of the family’s issues instead of the real source. Trust me. I stayed for 26 YEARS in this type of mess with a highly dysfunctional undermining wife and ended up blamed for everything dysfunctional that was caused by the undermining. You are on a potential powder keg that will eventually blow. Just leave and work on yourself to figure out in therapy why you attracted someone dysfunctional, distespecful, undermining and unhealthy. I did. Once you illuminate this, and understand it with insight you will then stop attracting unhealthy mates without four dysfunctional children.

    • I will tell you something about step-families and it’s not what u will want to hear. But if the husband is undermining you like that in front of you, just think what he does behind your back with his kids. Eventually you will wish you had not stayed in the marriage. It’s not an easy decision but do you want to live like that from now on? Probably not. good luck

  4. Undermining the other parent is a LACK OF RESPECT, and it can be deadly to a marriage, depending how serious the infractions are, and how often they happen. My ex pretty much constantly undermined me with the kids, even laughed at me in front of them, making it very difficult for me to parent, as they felt they did not need to listen to me. We are now divorced after 25 years. I also have realized how much it affected my own self esteem after years of this.

    • I hear you on this . Dealing with this currently. It has definitely affected my self esteem and I’m sick of it.

  5. I’m dealing with this now and have been for 12+ years. Now my kids are 13 and 15. My wife and her parents have pretty much pushed me out of the picture. I feel as if my children look at me as a peer. I’m definitely in a lonely place. I love my kids more than anything.

    • Brother…leave if you haven’t already. I was in the exact same situation with her and the inlaws but I stayed for 26 YEARS!!! I won’t change and you get blamed and scapegoated for everything they do!! Your children won’t respect you bc they see your inlaws and wife disrespecting you. Undermining is the ultimate form of disrespect. It won’t spot. Divorce her and get your self respect back. Best of luck but run don’t walk.

  6. I have dealt with this as a grandparent. My daughter was a single mom who worked long hours. When she went back to work after he was born I : picked him up from the sitters after working a full day, fed him, cleaned and bathed him. Took him to her house before she got home to put him to bed. I have taken days off when he was sick because she didn’t have paid personal time off. I have picked him up from school when he was ill. When schools were closed last year he came to my office every day to do his classes on-line. I was the one who watched his grades and make sure he did his homework. When she kept him at home, because she works from home, I was expected to make sure he got his school work and homework done. Now, she doesn’t even let me talk to him.
    I disciplined on what needs to be disciplined. The punishment fit the crime, in my opinion. His step father did it that way also. She, on the other hand has the same punishment for everything, whether it is not getting up and ready for school or sassing. She is super strict.
    There are other issues too, but those are the ones she tells people when they find out that I am not allowed to contact him.

  7. I keep getting undermined by my ex-wife. My son recently left my house because i told him to do his sister’s chores when he didn’t do what I asked, he asked his mom to pick him up and take him to her house, and, before he exited the door, he turned around and said F U to my girlfriend and my daughter (I was on my way back home from visiting a dying aunt in hospice care). As a result, while I was waiting in the plane to taxi out, I told my girlfriend that he was not to take his baseball stuff. he left without his baseball stuff, but came back unannounced because mom told him to go get them anyway. How do I deal with the other parent when this level of undermining exists?

  8. In my experience nothing will change. I left my wife after 4 years of her failing to enforce any of the rules we agreed upon in the house, one of them being no food allowed in bedrooms. I came to find out when I was not home she was permitting my step kids to take food to their rooms and also out into the garage. She already has 3 adult kids who struggle to manage their lives and now her 2 younger kids are headed in the same direction. It caused endless arguments until I left her. I was gone for a month before she talked me back. I returned to food stuck to the garage ceiling and a cockroach infestation in the house and the same issues of the kids defying the rules and my wife not caring a jot about it. We argued and it turns out from her perspective I am the one who is wrong and I just need to lay off the kids. I wish I’d cut her off completely and left them to continue wallowing in their filth without me. I am now once again in the position of having to come up with the costs to leave and start afresh once more. The warning signs were there from the start. I will never get involved with a lax parent who undermines and disrespects me ever again. The children learn from the bad parent and also disregard the parent who is trying to set boundaries. It ends up with the responsible adult left out in the cold and seen as the bad guy.

  9. My wife constantly undermines me. I grew up in a strict home, and I am finding out, she grew up with no discipline at all. I am not as strict as my parents, but when I try to discipline, my wife undermines the punishment, sometimes right in front of my kids. Trying to get her to agree to a punishment is like pulling teeth. I feel disrespected by her and it is a huge turn-off.

    • Same here, but in my case it’s my husband. I grew up with strict routines and discipline while he grew up in boarding school and running free on holidays and weekends. Our oldest is autistic and needs a clear set of rules and routine otherwise he struggles when left to doing whatever he wants. If my husband isn’t home, we get alone fine for the most part because he knows the routine but when dad is home, he tests his limits, calls me names because he knows if I says something, his dad is just going to say he is my baby boy he doesn’t mean it. Then later on my husband wonders why I don’t want to do anything with him when I finally do get our son to stay upstairs for the night? Who wants to hang out with someone that would let their kid call their mother an idiot or be so openly disrespectful to them and then get mad at the mom for speaking up for herself.

    • Well, it’s well known that punishment is not healthy for kids and can result in emotional abuse or anxiety ing term, so I can see why some partners feel like they have to interfere

      • There always should be consequences for bad behavior . If an adult acts badly he goes to jail without punishment and consequences you chaos. Our society today is a direct result of that.

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