By Kat Austin, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Parenting is hard. Each parent and each family approaches parenting in a different way, and parents often subscribe to different parenting styles. Parenting styles develop from reasons such as how we were raised as a child, the need for control, personal insecurity, or wanting to be liked by our children.  What happens to parents and kids if parenting styles are very different even polarized?  Often we see one parent as the “strict” parent and the other as the “lenient” parent. Polarized parenting can create intense conflict between parents and can be confusing to children, which will lead to children experiencing anxiety and acting out in a variety of ways.

Different Parenting Styles Can Create Anxiety

Not only do discrepancies in parenting styles create anxiety for kids, but also for parents.  Parents may attempt to alleviate some of their anxiety by becoming rigid or fixed in their parenting style thus creating more polarization.  Here is an example:  An adolescent is acting out—not coming home on time, using alcohol, and being disrespectful to both parents.  The more “lenient” parent becomes even more nurturing and forgiving to the adolescent.  This parent believes the other parent is too strict and the adolescent is suffering from the way the other parent is parenting.  The “strict” parent then becomes more frustrated and anxious.  This parent views the child as entitled or spoiled, and the parents as failing to provide the appropriate skills to launch.  Thus, this parent becomes stricter.  This is a cycle that can spin out of control very quickly.

Once this cycle becomes engrained, parents can shift the focus from the child’s behavior to blaming one another.  Children can be very perceptive and aware of this parental dynamic, particularly adolescents.  Children can take advantage of the parental split that is created by polarized parenting.  With children working to split the parents even further, the wedge is driven deeper into the parental hierarchy creating more conflict and difficulty co-parenting.  These interactions are taxing on child/parental and spousal relationships.  They also increase the child’s anxiety because the child senses his/her parents are not sufficiently in charge of the family.

The Goldilocks Parenting Style

When working with families with this dynamic, I find it important for each parent to understand the reason they are pulled to a specific parenting style.  Creating awareness about family of origin issues, insecurities, and the need for control will help each parent develop understanding of why they are pulled to engage with their child in a specific way.  I often have parents learn about Baumrind’s parenting styles. Baumrind divided parenting styles into three types—Authoritarian, Permissive, and Authoritative, the latter being the Goldilocks “just right” kind.  I also remind parents that they are working towards the same goal: to raise healthy and happy kiddos who will be successful transitioning into adulthood.

For expert help with parenting issues contact Kat Austin, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist