Kids. They sure can strain a marriage.
The idea of kids is so thrilling and romantic. The reality…sometimes not so much.
When kids are easy, parenting is easy. But most kids aren’t always easy, and some kids are rarely easy. Parenting brings out the best and the worst in us as individuals. Add the dynamic of co-parenting to the mix and a couple’s relationship can become quite strained…or worse.
Expectations of parents
As parents we have a myriad of expectations for our kids: do your homework, brush your teeth, practice piano, turn off electronics when the time is up, eat vegetables. The list goes on and on. Sometimes kids meet those expectations and sometimes they don’t. When an expectation isn’t met, parents have essentially three possible responses: 1) make the child do it, 2) solve the problem collaboratively, or 3) drop the expectation, for now at least. The Think: Kids program at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) calls these options Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C, respectively.
It’s not uncommon in a family to have one parent who is more of a Plan A parent (“You better do that right now or else!”) while the other parent is more of a Plan C parent (“All right. We’ll let that go for now.”) Plan A parents are often frustrated and resentful of how the Plan C parent handles the child, and vice versa. The Plan A parent may think that they’re the only one holding the child accountable, while the Plan C parent may think that they’re the only one keeping things calm. Meanwhile, the child receives different and confusing messages.
Sometimes both parents are Plan A, or both are Plan C, and they quickly learn that neither approach is effective nor conducive to good relations with their kids. Parenting suffers, discord between the couple mounts, and the family is left looking for answers.
What if both parents could be satisfied?
What if there was an alternative approach that could satisfy both the Plan A and Plan C parent? An approach that held kids accountable while keeping the temperature down in the house and strengthening the parent/child relationship to boot? Plan B – the Collaborative Problem Solving approach – is the answer.
The Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) approach is an evidence-based model developed by MGH’s Think: Kids program that has as its core philosophy “Kids do well if they can.” What does that mean? It means that most challenging behavior is a result of lagging skills (e.g., flexibility, frustration tolerance and problem-solving skills), not will. In other words, if a child could do well, he or she would be doing well. Armed with that compassionate mindset, the Collaborative Problem Solving approach employs three steps: 1) empathize with the child to understand his/her concerns or perspective on the problem, 2) share the adult’s concerns, and 3) brainstorm, assess and choose a mutually satisfying solution to try.
CPS pursues 5 core parenting goals: getting expectations met, reducing the challenging behavior, building the child’s skills, solving problems durably and, most importantly, building the relationship between the child and the parent. Although Plan A (imposing adult will) can succeed in getting a child to meet an expectation, it has the significant downsides of escalating the child’s challenging behavior and diminishing the parent/child relationship. Plan C (dropping an expectation temporarily) can quite effectively reduce the challenging behavior but is not a long-term solution because it makes no progress on the other four important goals.
Plan B is a model that both Plan A and Plan C parents can get behind. It unites a couple with a shared philosophy and approach to parenting while also strengthening the couple’s relationship with their child and building their child’s skills to handle life more adaptively. A family using the Collaborative Problem Solving approach is on a promising path to making parenting and marriage work.