Toxic Parenting Habits Between Couples That Hurt Kids

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People often talk about dysfunctional patterns in divorced or separated couples that hurt kids. However, couples don't necessarily have to be separated to create an unhealthy environment. Parents can engage in toxic habits when they're living under the same roof.

The way couples communicate, treat one another, and work together can either enhance or diminish a child’s quality of life. Parents who show mutual respect, cooperation, and encouragement teach children healthy relationship skills.

Couples who exhibit toxic behaviors send kids the wrong message about love and life. A couple's dysfunctional behavior can influence the way their children see themselves and the world around them.

Here are five toxic parenting habits between couples that negatively affect kids, and what you can do to remedy them.

1. Competing to Be the Best Parent

Rather than cooperate with one another, some couples behave as if they’re in direct competition. Unfortunately, when couples compete for "parent of the year" everyone loses. Families are strongest when they work together as a team.

Trying to prove that you can get up the most times in the night, or that you can clean the house the fastest in an effort to outshine your partner will hurt your relationship, as well as your children.

Kids are better served by having two capable, confident parents, rather than one exhausted parent with a superhero complex and a parent who tries to pick up the pieces. Your goal should be to work together as a team so you can both function at your best.

2. Overcompensating for the Other Parent

Different parenting styles can cause one parent to overcompensate for the other. If one parent tends to be strict, the other may respond by being extra laid back in an effort to balance out a partner’s no-nonsense attitude.

Playing “good parent, bad parent” entices kids to manipulate the situation.

Overcompensating for the other parent leads to a lack of consistency, which isn’t healthy for kids.

If you and your spouse disagree on discipline, examine your parenting styles. Work together to establish clear household rules and consequences you’ll both enforce consistently.

3. Vying to Be Liked the Most

Sometimes parents work hard to be their child’s favorite parent. The need to be liked often causes them to give in to bad behavior, or spoil a child in an effort to win their favor.

Trying to win your child’s approval will backfire in the end. In this situation, your child will only be happy when you’re not enforcing the rules.

Kids need clear structure, firm limits, and consistent discipline, which means there will be days where you won’t win any popularity contests.

It's normal for kids to like one parent better than the other on certain days. Parents should not be competing to get more affection from the kids.

4. Colluding With the Child

There are several ways parents collude with a child. A mother who spends lots of money on back-to-school clothes and tells her child, “Don’t tell Dad about this!” is setting up an unhealthy (and dishonest) dynamic.

Similarly, a father who conspires not to tell his partner that the lamp got broken because their son was playing basketball in the living room is not helping the situation.

Keeping secrets from your partner, lying, complaining about the other parent with your child, or agreeing to behavior that the other parent would never allow, are unhealthy parent-child dynamics.

When one parent connives with a child, the family hierarchy begins to shift which can introduce more problems into the home.

Instead, work with your partner to parent together and never team up with your child against the other parent.

5. Outwardly Disagreeing Over Discipline

It’s not healthy for children to see their parents disagree over what’s best for them—for example, overhearing parents arguing with statements such as “He shouldn’t have to go to time-out for that,” or, “I think he should be allowed to go out with his friends today!”

Showing a lack of respect for the other parent will encourage your kids to do the same. Instead, demonstrate to your child that you respect your partner’s opinion, even if you don't agree with them.

If you disagree over a discipline strategy, present a united front when you're in your child’s presence and talk about your concerns privately.

In the moment, going along with a discipline strategy that you don’t agree with is preferable to behaving in a way that shows your child you don't trust your partner’s opinion or judgment.

How to Reduce Toxic Habits

If you and your partner are caught up in toxic habits, you may need professional help to sort them out. It can be useful to talk to a family couples therapist who can help you learn to let go of the behaviors and habits that are hurting your relationship—and your kids.

If your partner refuses to attend therapy, you can still go on your own. You can benefit from learning individual strategies to be the best parent you can be while limiting the negative effect of toxic parenting habits on your family.

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