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When Teens Play Divorced Parents Against Each Other

Rules often vary greatly from one household to another. Even though differences are to be expected, concerned moms and dads will agree that the safety of their son or daughter is of the utmost importance. Teenagers can’t be allowed to run the streets and do as they please without regard to rules and expectations, but unfortunately not all parents set boundaries. Some parents are guilty of allowing their teen to do as he or she pleases as long as the child stays out of their hair and out of trouble. Other parents maintain control and know where their teenager is at all times.

Unfortunately, when one parent does not know how to say ‘no’, the parent trying to control the situation ends up being the “bad guy.” When divorced parents don’t agree, maintaining control can be a big problem, especially when the teen is visiting (or living with) the more lenient parent. When one parent says ‘no’, the average teenager will attempt to gain permission from the other parent. This is when the teen makes an attempt at playing one parent against the other. After the other parent says ‘yes’, the teen ignores the demands of the parent that initially said ‘no’, and this creates a lot of tension between all parties.

So what can be done? Here are some tips:

1. A united front is nice, but sometimes you will simply need to lay everything on the table and tell your teenager the truth. For example, “Your father and I disagree on this. But since this home is considered to be your primary residence, you will either choose to abide by my decision, or choose the consequence – you decide.”

2. Arguing between parents is an inevitable reality, but if a teen witnesses his mom and dad fighting, he will know they are divided, thus making it more likely that he will be able to manipulate the situation. When parents are in disagreement about one matter, it is easier for them to disagree on another. Also, when parents are in the middle of an argument, it’s more challenging to think rationally and make the best decisions for the teenager. Parents are also more likely to disagree with each other about decisions when they are in the middle of an argument. Thus, decisions shouldn't be made until everyone is calm.

3. Be willing to compromise. Creative compromises can be called for not only between parents, but with your teenager. But beware of sacrificing your values for the sake of a united front. If one parent always controls decisions and the other always backs down, it might signal something troubling in the relationship. In this case, you may want to consider short-term family counseling.

4. Both parents should memorize the following phrase: "I don't know if you can. Your [mom/dad] and I will have to talk about it first." Those two little sentences will buy you some time to consult with the other half. If your teen resists when you try to buy time, then say, “If you need an answer right now, then the answer is ‘no’.”

5. Discuss and decide in advance how to handle common or predictable situations.

6. Don't be afraid to differ with the other parent. Being united in front of teens is nice, but two heads really are better than one in most parenting issues. Even so, try to discuss your differences calmly when your son or daughter is not present.

7. If you find yourself in a power struggle with the other parent, remind yourself that a weaker parenting plan supported by both parents is much better than a stronger plan supported by only one parent.

8. Get on the same page with the other parent as much as possible. Both parents need to talk things over and agree on most things (but not everything). They may have to compromise and meet in the middle occasionally. Before handing out any consequences or making any decisions, parents should try to sit down together to be sure they are on the same page. When teens see unison, they are less likely to try to play one parent against each other.

9. If your teenager says, “But dad said” …You say, “I said ‘no’. You know the rules, and you broke them. No TV for a week. Next time, don't ask your father after you’ve already asked me and I’ve given you my answer.” As far as your husband goes, the same thing applies to him. “No. You daughter asked me. She knows the rules. She didn't like the answer I gave her. She has to understand it by our teaching. The consequence is no TV for a week.”

10. Know what is - and isn't - acceptable to you and why. Let your teen know that you and the other half will - and do - disagree about some things. This is more realistic and easier on a teenager than witnessing mom and dad fighting.

11. If it’s agreed upon by both parties, call the other parent several times throughout the week to keep him or her up-to-date on the big (and small) things that are going on in your teen’s life.

12. Never think of a teen's permission-seeking question as requiring a "yes" or "no" answer. What it really requires is parental information-seeking. Answer the question by asking plenty of questions of your own. For example, "What will happen at this party? What time is it over? Who will drive you and pick you up? Will you be leaving and going elsewhere at any time during the party? Is your friend Sara going? What does her mother say? Who is chaperoning the party?" …and so on.

13. "Yes" or "No" can come with a compromise. For example, "Yes, you can go to the party, but I will pick you up at 10 PM, not midnight." Alternatively, you can say, "No, you can't go to this party, but I'll be happy to be a chaperone at the next one so you can go."

14. Parents should try to think with their minds rather than their emotions. For example, if mom allows herself to become upset when her teenager is angry with her, she is more likely to become more lenient to try to please her child. This may mean that mom veers away from what she agreed on with the dad, which may lead to him becoming upset. It may also mean that mom doesn't act in her child’s best interest because she is seeking favor from the child rather than trying to do the best thing for him or her.

15. To stem further manipulation, one parent can say, "We really don't like it that you ask both of us separately without telling us." And the other parent can add, "The next time you do that, and any time after that, the answer will be no."

16. Trust the other parent. You both love your teenager. Give the other parent the benefit of the doubt that he/she wants to act in your child’s best interest.

17. Try to hold a family meeting. Whether the meeting is in a therapist's office or in the home, divorced parents should make their expectations clear in the presence of their son or daughter. To stop teens from playing divorced parents against each other, they must realize that when mom or dad says ‘no’, they can’t petition the other parent in an attempt to receive the answer they are seeking. Once a teen realizes that her mom and dad aren’t going to go against each other's wishes, and once she fully understands that her parents aren’t going to change their minds, she will eventually stop (or reduce) her attempts at playing one against the other.

18. When an important decision needs to be made, try to talk about the possibilities with the other parent. This means your adolescent may have to wait several hours to get an answer – and that is perfectly fine (of course, one parent can make a decision when it is something simple that has been discussed in the past).

19. Whenever you both decide to say "no," and your teenager replies, "I hate you," …it's OK. She's just being an adolescent.

20. Whenever you have to make an “executive decision” (i.e., a critical decision that simply can’t wait to be made), let the other parent know about it as soon as possible.

My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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