Becoming a parent seems to render you fair game for parenting advice, regardless of whether it is based on evidence, opinion or delusion. Family, friends, and even helpful strangers in the street are likely to advise you on … well, everything. In an ideal world, your partner might be expected to offer support before criticism; validation before censure. But what if your parenting has crossed a line?
Prescribing an approach to family life misses the point. Child temperament, parent personality, family circumstances and previous experience all have a role to play in parent-child relationships, and it’s a two-way street. Relationships between parents and children come in all sorts of “best” shapes and sizes that reflect human differences, but some aspects of parenting have clear negative connotations for child outcomes.
Of particular significance is what we might call “harsh” parenting, marked by physical or psychological aggression. Such parenting approaches may include humiliating the child, yelling at them, calling them mean names or threatening them. It can also extend to smacking or yanking the child into place. According an NSPCC report from 2011, close to 40% of parents with children under 11 admitted to using physical punishment in the previous year.
Harsh parenting has known implications for children’s well-being, such as increased anxiety as well as disruptive or oppositional behaviours and aggression. It’s no surprise then that harsh parenting gets a lot of attention from those looking to intervene to support families.
The hard bit about intervention is that there are many interconnected aspects of family life that make it complex. One getting increased attention is coparenting, a term which describes child-rearing by mutually reinforcing teamwork. It is about how parents work together in their roles and some suggest it is closely associated with children’s development.
Early research into coparenting was focused on divorce, and the implications for how parents could work together for children’s well-being. Now it is used to help understand all family situations, whether breaking up or staying together, or anything in between.
High-quality coparenting can be defined by things like shared child-rearing values, cooperation and support of the other parent’s efforts. Low-quality coparenting may involve criticism, or actions that thwart or undermine the other’s parenting. And evidence suggests that high-quality coparenting may act as a buffer for children, for example, shielding them from parental criticism or negativity.
But how does coparenting work as a system when forms of harsh parenting are at work? Can it buffer children from the harmful effects? Nobody had previously considered this question, but we thought it worth investigation.
In our study, PhD students Rachel Latham and Katherine Mark interviewed 106 mothers and fathers over the telephone about their perceptions of coparenting young twins, as well as collecting questionnaire-based information about harsh parenting and children’s disruptive behaviour. It was important for the research that we asked parents’ about their perceptions of coparenting, to get an insight into how they felt their partner viewed them as a parent, rather than what we might be able to observe.
In our study, far from providing the expected buffer, high-quality coparenting as perceived by mothers exacerbated the toxicity of their harsh parenting for children’s disruptive behaviour, with increases over a one-year period during their transition to school.
Our results were initially surprising, but we soon realised that we had hit on something potentially crucial for intervention efforts.
Maternal perceptions of high-quality coparenting reflect a feeling that the partner supports her parenting, makes her feel like a good parent and shares the same child-rearing values. For mothers using harsh parenting strategies, then, high-quality coparenting implied a family climate where hostile interpersonal interactions are not only modelled by the mum, but also deemed acceptable or at least tolerated by the dad, likely even encouraging children to behave similarly over time.
On the other hand, for these mothers, perceptions of low-quality coparenting suggested a coparent who refuses to sanction her harsh stategies, potentially undermining or even actively stopping them. As a result, these fathers are likely to reduce children’s exposure to a mother’s physical or psychological aggression and highlight these behaviours as inappropriate.
We should note that although dads’ harsh parenting was also associated with more disruptive behaviour, it was mums’ harsh parenting amplified by high-quality coparenting that shone through. While the role of dads is changing, fathers typically still spend less time with their children. We think it’s likely that when mum is harsh and supported by dad, it’s simply more salient for children’s behaviour.
Help and support are vital for parents – it can be a tough job, particularly when faced with a disruptive child. Often you need support and validation from your husband, wife or partner; but sometimes, if they are harsh, you need to question them, and you can do that in the knowledge that it can produce a better outcome for the child.