Parenting Strategies: When Parents Disagree on Discipline


Since our son has become a teenager, it has become clear to me that my husband and I have very different ideas about parenting teenagers in general, and about parenting our own teenaged son, in particular.  This did not seem to be a big issue when our son was younger, but now that he is getting older, we are definitely running into trouble. We don’t seem to see eye to eye on anything! Some days I think my biggest problem is with my husband, and not with my son.  What should we do about this situation?


Without a doubt, one of the most confusing things for ANY adolescent is when his or her parents disagree on ANYTHING, particularly on issues having to do with what is in that teenager’s best interest.  When teenagers see their parents argue and continue to disagree with each other, they usually feel confused at first, but these feelings quickly evolve into more intense feelings of fear and anxiety.  (Don’t let the fact that teenagers look like adults fool you into thinking that they can actually think and reason like adults.  Their thinking and reasoning is, itself, a long and gradual developmental process.)  Generally, the more the parents disagree, the more unsettled their teenagers feel as the foundation of their own emotional “home” seems to be more and more unsteady.  Many times, teenagers are afraid to talk to either parent about their feelings, for fear that actually telling their parents could make the situation even worse.  As a result, since many of these teenagers feel responsible for their parents’ fighting (since the fighting is often about how to parent them!), the teens often choose to suffer in silence.  In reality, however, many of these adolescents tend to ACT OUT their feelings in some self-defeating or destructive way.  To be sure, this is a dangerous cycle.  Too often, teenagers act out to such a degree that they do long-term damage to others or to themselves.  Eventually, a different question emerges: “How far does the teenager have to push this before his/her parents do the work that THEY need to do in order to restore the stability of the family’s emotional foundation?”

A few guiding principles will help determine the best course of action for the family asking this question.

  1. “When all the key adults in a teenager’s life are on the same page, then the teenager MUST grow in the direction supported by the key adults’ coordinated communication.”
  2. “Almost always, the key adults are very close to being on the same page:  the points of difference are usually much smaller than the points of agreement.”

These two “guiding concepts,” articulated by my friend and colleague, Dr. Harry Parad (2001), lead to one particularly strong recommendation for the family asking the question above:  immediate family therapy.  It is not likely that the parents disagree on everything.  In fact, it would be quite reassuring for these parents to work together and to be reminded of areas in which they actually agree!

As the “dangerous cycle” described above points out, it is just too risky to allow the parents’ ongoing disagreements, particularly about how they parent their own son, to continue.  Parents have a responsibility to provide a psychologically and physically safe home environment for their children.  In this case, the parents’ continued arguing and fighting, particularly about how to parent their own son, threatens both – his psychological and the physical safety.

Family therapy – first for just the parents, and then, eventually, to include the son – is a focused and useful way that the parents can work together again to (1) re-establish common ground in their relationship with each other, and (2) to generate specific and concrete plans to manage their differences so that their son perceives them as working together, as being on the same team….and eventually…on the same page!


David L. Gleason, Psy.D.
Licensed Psychologist

References:  Parad, H. W., “Alternatives to Suspension.”  Professional Workshop presented to school administrators.  July, 2001.

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