The Battle of Parenting Styles
How to Keep Your Compassion When You and Your Ex Have Very Different Parenting Styles
By Tiffany Meyer
In divorced or separated families in particular, differences in parenting styles are a common cause of conflict. And if you’re sitting in the seat of the “NVC parent,” it can be easy to quickly judge your ex’s style as “wrong,” “domineering” or simply “uninformed.” Yet such judgments are only cause for further conflict.
What NVC teaches us is that using demands with our kids may work in the short run. And if a demand doesn’t do it, certainly a “do this or else” command will do the trick. Before we know it, the house is quiet, everyone’s doing what they’re told, and we can finally relax.
Enter … teenage daughter who visits every other weekend. Just so happens she lives full time with mom, and they’ve been living this thing called “NVC consciousness” for years. Suddenly your demand/ command approach no longer works with her. She sees right through you and rebels at the mere sniff of a demand.
So what’s a parent to do? On one hand your mind is racing with “if he’d just do it like I do, things would be fine.” And on the other you realize that your ex truly believes his style works, he stands behind it and has no intention of changing.
Whether you have full custody, shared custody or something in between, how we respond to our ex’s parenting style to him and around our child will have a lasting impact on their relationship to one another.
It’s OK to disagree with your ex’s approach. The key is avoiding judgment or self-righteousness in your response.
Case in point, my 13-year-old daughter Lydia spent winter break with her dad, his wife and their four children. She called me one night aggravated by an encounter she’d had with her dad. Her stepmom had asked Lydia to show her younger brother how to use an indoor remote control car he’d gotten for Christmas, as the toy was expensive and she was worried her son might break it without the supervision. Lydia was engaged in this support when her brother lost control of the car, and it knocked over a glass vase, breaking it on the hardwood floor.
Hearing the crash, her father came in and as Lydia described, threw out punishment and blame. “That’s it, Lydia. You’ve just lost your month’s allowance. I expect you to be a better influence on your brother, after all he is only 6. Now everyone go to your room for 20 minutes and think about what you’ve done while I clean up this mess.”
Lydia’s reaction was understandable. “It was totally unfair. He came in shouting at us, and when I raised my voice back to defend myself, he just sent me to my room.”
Regardless of the issue our child brings us in response to the other parent’s style, we have two choices. We can judge, or we can empathize with the needs our ex was trying to meet with his/her style. Which response we choose will have a profound impact on our child’s future response to similar encounters.
A rule I continue to reiterate to Lydia is this – regardless of how you feel about your dad’s parenting style or how he communicates, you need to show him respect. We can’t expect respect if we don’t offer respect first. I tell her this in the context of a broader lesson about life. At some point in her life, she’s likely to have a boss, customer or teacher whose style she doesn’t like. We can disagree, we can stand up for ourselves, but it is never ok to disrespect. Because when we do, we say “my needs matter more than yours.”
It would be inauthentic of me to not show any frustration or annoyance at my ex’s style in front of my daughter. But for the most part, I remember that by modeling respect of my ex first, I’m showing my daughter she can too.
When my daughter calls me in these situations, I find myself torn. On one hand I want to jump in and defend her. This might look like this: “OK, get your dad on the phone, I need to talk to him.” After which I might explain how unreasonable his actions were.
On the other hand, I don’t want to contribute to further conflict for Lydia, and certainly my judging him and trying to defend her, will. Likely my ex will feel defensive, especially since I was responding only to Lydia’s side of the story. Defending her will also tell him that I don’t respect him and that I don’t think Lydia should either. Both of these outcomes are likely to contribute to further conflict.
The point, really, is that my role is not about agreeing or disagreeing with my ex’s style (unless of course his style inflicts physical harm to Lydia). It’s about what role I choose to play for my daughter in these moments. And since I want to prepare her to handle the situation with compassion on her own, the best role for me to play once I’ve modeled respect, is empathy buddy. To let her vent and help translate her jackals into feelings and needs.
Connect to Dad’s Needs
At the same time, I’m not just her buddy, I’m also her mom. So, Lydia and I have an agreement. You can call me whenever you need to vent about your dad’s parenting style or something that happened, for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, we change gears and you pretend I’m your dad. At that point you do your best to connect to what needs I was trying to meet in making the demands and commands I did.
If your child is still learning his emotional vocabulary, try using our list of Feelings and Needs We All Have. Your child can take the list with her on weekend visits and when she’s stuck trying to guess her dad’s feelings or needs she can refer to her list.
Celebrate the Small Steps
No approach is ever perfect – there are definitely days when all Lydia can do is vent and 15 minutes just hits the tip of the iceberg. But there are also days when she doesn’t feel an urge to call to vent at all.
Instead, she calls to celebrate – it could be that she was able to calm herself down all on her own. Or, that rather than yell back in rebellion at her dad’s demand, she was able to walk away, trusting fully that once he’d calmed down that he’d be open to more a compassionate discussion.
As you attempt these steps with your own kids, remember to model celebration of the smallest of accomplishments. Why? Because this stuff isn’t easy, not by a long shot. And it can be easy to get discouraged when we haven’t acknowledged our accomplishments. And, because each baby step absolutely matters because it builds trust one word at a time.
Tiffany Meyer is the past editor and a contributing writer to the NVC Quick Connect e-Newsletter, the founder of the Help Share NVC Project, past marketing director for PuddleDancer Press, founder/president of Numa Marketing, author of Writing a Results-Driven Marketing Plan: The Nonprofit’s Guide to Making Every Dollar Count, and creator of the companion online training program, Results-Driven Marketing Mastery. She has been learning and practicing NVC for more than a decade and remains committed to integrating it into her personal and professional life.