Parenting Teens: 3 Tips for Building a Unified Approach with Your Spouse

Boundaries with Teens

By Dr. John Townsend

Are you and your spouse united or divided in your parenting? Consider the following dialogue:

Dad: "You're letting our daughter do anything she wants."

Mom: "You're too strict with her."

Dad: "She needs more discipline and structure."

Mom: "She needs more love and encouragement."

Dad: "She's becoming irresponsible and out of control."

Mom: "She's becoming insecure and afraid."

And you thought kids and teenagers had conflicts! This conversation illustrates a primary problem that results when parents can't agree on how to parent. Rather than doing what they need to do for their kids—put her together—divided parents pull their kids apart.

Of course, no parents agree on everything. But in the best situations, they agree on the most important things and disagree only on styles, preferences, and smaller matters. This is what God intended, but often parents get in the way of God's design. When parents are far apart in their values and perceptions of their children, the kids lose out. They have no one to contain and integrate their internal divisions. Their unifying environment is split up, so their inner conflicts remain stuck, and can get worse.

If one parent is loving but has poor boundaries, and the other has good boundaries but is not very loving, their kids will likely be undeveloped in her ability to love and to set limits. They will have difficulty being open and vulnerable, taking responsibility, and staying attached in conflict. They will struggle to work through problems. Clearly, the stakes of split parenting are high.

If you and your spouse have significant disagreements about your kids, you can begin to resolve your conflicts—and go a long way toward maturing your child—by doing the following:

1. Agree that your teen comes first.

Talk about your conflicting viewpoints, and agree to work on your differences by doing what's in the best interest of your teen. Protect your teen, and find a way to agree on love and limits.

2. Defer to each other's strengths.

Most parents each have an area of strength. Agree that, for your teen's sake, you will defer to the strengths of the other. For example, if you have difficulty providing clear structure for your teen, you might ask your spouse for help and guidance. Or, if you can't listen and understand at the emotional levels your child needs, get your spouse involved in the conversation.

3. Don't triangulate your teen.

Sometimes parents will forget their role and involve their teen in their conflicts with each other. This is called triangulation, and leads to all kinds of problems, such as one parent indulging the teen with privileges, freedom, and gifts as a way of stealing the kid's love from the other parent. The other parent reacts by using too much strictness and discipline in order to prove the spouse's indulgent approach wrong. If you and your spouse are triangulating, stop. Agree to work out your differences. Consult a third party—such as a friend, pastor, or counselor—if the triangulation continues.

God designed parenting to be executed by a mom and a dad who love each other, support each other's parenting, make up for each other's limitations, and correct each other's mistakes. It is a very good system when it works as planned. So work together to become united rather than divided parents. After all, you are your teen's most important guide for how life is supposed to be lived. Kids do best when their parents stand together. Give your teen what he or she needs.


Taken from Boundaries with Teens by Dr. John Townsend. Learn more about this helpful resource.

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  • Molly on

    My husband is not a believer and although a good father in so many ways (very funny, loyal, steadfast), he really doesn’t initiate much parenting. He leaves it all to me and we have almost zero disputes. What kind of impact might this have on our teens (14 & 16, boys)? I really wish he would want to be more involved but that is not the way he grew up and there is no apparent desire to change the “perfection” of his family of origin.

  • Amy on

    I’ve been in your shoes with a marriage that new, a SS that age, and those same responsibilities. Try a private talk with your husband about he wants to do things. Make some rules in advance, both of you agree to stick to them, and both of you agree that deviations must be discussed between the two of you before they are announced by either of you. As the bio parent, he needs to recognize his role and the child’s natural tendency to ascribe greater authority to him. During your talk with your husband, let him know that when he chooses not to bypass you or override something you have done, the responsibility for al further decisions will be on him. Although you wish to be a full parent to this kiddo, your level of permitted involvement is largely determined by your husband. Hopefully he will see and appreciate your genuine care for his child. It certainly is a blessing to them both. Keep it in prayer and thank God privately for what is going right. Helps the attitude remain or become positive.

  • Nancy on

    You sound like a loving and caring stepmom. May I suggest that you talk with your stepson a LOT. Share what you see in this situation with him. Although he is only 10, I’m sure he is smart enough to understand. Communication is very important and so is planning and direction. Before you approach him, sit down and write out the things you are feeling then make a plan to share it with those involved. Before you do anything, pray. Everything will work out as it should. Peace.

  • Richard on

    Doesn’t matter if you are the kid’s biological parents or happen to be their step parents, but, it would be a good idea to take major decisions for the child only after discussing it together. Now, opinions may vary but, you will eventually lead to decision that will be good for your child. And of course, the parents can rest assure that they were not left out.

  • Favored Princess on

    Hi Jenn,

    If the parents don’t take the lead in setting boundaries then it will be hard for you to make any headway with your SS. He will go with what is least expected of him. I say this as a Step Mom of 8 years to a now 12 year old. What I have learned is that all I can do is model good boundaries and behavior. I can teach my SS how to treat me and how to treat others by my example. Modeling is an incredibly powerful tool and keeps us from crossing into bio parent territory.

    I am slowly releasing myself of the “burdens of responsibility” that I thought I had to carry regarding my SS. I am learning to turn to the Lord for guidance. I ask him to show me my purpose in this little boy’s life. I ask him to show me what is my true responsibility and what I need to relinquish to him or to the bio parents. It’s not easy but it is necessary and incredibly freeing. It allows me to enjoy my relationship with my SS more and not always be concerned about what he should or shouldn’t be learning/doing in life.

    I have to remember that I believe in a God that redeems us all. He will redeem your SS if he accepts Christ, so you don’t have to worry or fear how he will “turn out”. Pray without ceasing for your SS. I have found that to be a very powerful tool in my life and in his because I share with him my prayers for him and for others. It provides us with an opportunity to connect and talk about the Lord.

    I am also learning to see things from my SS’s perspective. He is in 2 homes with 2 cultures. It’s like living in Mexico and America. Two cultures, two sets of laws, two languages etc. When he is in America, he is considered “too Mexican” and when he is in Mexico, he is considered “too American”. That has to be tough for any kid to deal with because he loves both countries. I have to learn to accept my SS’s dual citizenship and understand that there are pros/cons in both “lands”. I am learning to not fear the customs of the other “country” and instead trust in the Lord to help me understand their customs and ways. I also have to learn to sympathize with the difficulties of my SS’s dual citizenship and express that to him.

    This is all a journey and it’s not easy. Being a Step Mom is very difficult and is not for the faint of heart.

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