Tearing Children "In Half"

"...One way children learn to get along is to develop separate approaches and attitudes when dealing with each parent. In effect, they define their identity in terms of the parent they need to get along with. Over time this can cause a child to become uncertain about whom they are."

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D,


Many parents wonder why small children and even teenagers become disrespectful, defiant and disobedient toward their parents. There are actually many reasons why children become so difficult. The biggest reasons include lack of discipline, parent conflicts, alcohol and drugs and peer influences. There are many more reasons. Because there are many reasons it can be difficult for parents to know what to do.

To a large extent these problems are part of the natural process of growing up. But many kids get hung-up or have problems moving past this rebellious stage. The traditional approaches to these behavioral problems include the judicious use of rewards, incentive, consequences and punishment. These methods will work with many children and with some degree of success. Learning how to effectively use rewards, incentive, consequences and punishment is important. It is a foundation of parenting. But those methods alone arenít enough Ė especially when parents are contributing to the problem.

One important reason that children are so disrespectful, defiant and disobedient is because their parents are "tearing their children in half." I donít mean they are doing this physically. But some parents are tearing their kids apart psychologically. There are three ways that parents tear children apart.

  • Parents who are opposites. These are parents who have completely different values, attitudes, temperaments and goals in life. The decisions and reasons that these parents give their children seem arbitrary, inconsistent and confusing. This is especially hard to live with when a child is trying to please both parents and is afraid to disappoint them.
  • Parent who are conflicted. These are parents who canít agree on anything. They argue, fight or may become aggressive toward each other. As a result their child never knows what to think, what to say or do. They are afraid and lose respect for their parents.
  • Radically different parenting approaches. These are parents who disagree and are not consistent in their use of rewards, incentives, consequences and punishment. For example, one parent may never punish a child and the other may punish their child every time the child makes a mistake.

Small children canít explain how they feel very well, they just feel it. Fear usually results in crying, running, hiding or trying to find their parents. Sadness usually teaches kids how to receive and express support and comfort. Anger is supposed to teach other people to stay away and it teaches kids how to keep people away. As kids get older they start to anticipate how people will feel, what could happen next and what actions they can take that may influence the outcome. Part of belonging requires us to feel what other people feel, to understand what that means and how to respond to a given situation.

Imagine for a moment what it would be like to grow up with one parent who is crying and upset all the time and the other parent is not. What would it be like to live with one parent who is extremely angry in front of their child over little things and the other parent is never that way? How would you feel if the people that you loved and needed were always fighting and never agreed on anything? The answer is simple. Confused and conflicted inside. You probably wouldnít know what was important, how to feel or what to think. Even worse, you would need to find some way to get along with these people.

Children are naturally afraid to take sides when their parents act so differently. They worry that taking sides might cause one parent to stop loving them. It is very hard for a child to know what to do. Many kids end up blaming their self and they think it is their fault. Other children learn how to act differently with each parent. Still others simply stop caring what their parents think, feel and do.

One way children learn to get along is to develop separate approaches and attitudes when dealing with each parent. In effect, they define their identity in terms of the parent they need to get along with. Over time this can cause a child to become uncertain about whom they are. Some kids develop personalities for different people and different occasions. While charming and polite, they can also be manipulative, divisive and demanding. Many end up overly influenced by other kids who help them decide who they are, what to think and what is or is not acceptable behavior.

Children learn to see the world through the eyes of people they love, need and depend on. Children can end up feeling frustrated and upset when they are facing parents with vastly different perspectives, attitudes, values and opinion. These kids can become disrespectful, defiant and disobedient. Why? Because they are frustrated with their parents and they donít respect or care what their parents think or want. Their parents have lost credibility in their eyes. They may fear their parents but they are tired of listening and trying to "learn" from them. Instead, they bond with kids who agree with them and feel the way they do. This is one way that parents lose their kids to a group of kids or a gang.

Adults can usually understand and deal with conflicting views and emotions that donít make sense. But even adults get confused and upset. Still, young children and even teenagers have great difficulty appreciating and respecting parents who view, act and approach life differently. There are some steps you can take that will help your children avoid these problems.

  • Never fight in front of your child. Always treat each other with respect in front of your child. Apologize and admit your mistakes after a disagreement. Avoid creating the appearance that one parent is right and the other is wrong during emotionally volatile encounters.
  • Never resort to anger, aggression or threatening behavior during disagreements or to solve problems. Apologize to your child and find common ground after a fight. Make amends.
  • Talk about parenting problems and decisions away from your child. Donít disagree about discipline in front of your child. Be consistent about your rules and expectations. One consistent approach is better than two different approaches.
  • Never takes side with your child against the other parent. That also means that you should not communicate that the other parent is wrong and stupid. Work it out with the other parent first before you talk to your child.
  • Go see a counselor if your personalities, values, attitudes and approach to parenting is different. It is important for you to understand what you are teaching your child by your actions, discipline and relationship as parents.

copyright 2006 to 2008, Michael G. Conner