It is quite common for one parent to think that the other parent is too strict. The overly strict parent may be the biological parent of your child (i.e. your current spouse or your ex-spouse). Just as easily, the overly strict parent may be the child’s step-parent (i.e. your spouse from your recent re-marriage). No matter who it is, watching this person parent your child (or children) is a painful experience for you. You think that this person is unduly harsh or demanding and may be damaging your child. What can you do about it?
What is Too Strict?
Few parents feel that they, themselves, are too strict. In fact, most parents think that their own perspective on setting rules and boundaries for children is “just right.” If the other parent does it differently, that other parent is seen as “too lenient” or “too strict.” We use our our own values as as the golden standard!
In fact, there is a more objective way to determine whether or not a parent is too strict. We can look at how the children are doing. We need to look at three main areas:
- the quality of the parent-child relationship
- the child’s behavior and performance
- the child’s emotional health
Let’s look at each of these individually. If a parent is too strict, this will affect the quality of the parent-child relationship. Children resent parents who are overly strict. They feel closer to those who seem to understand them and respect their natures and their limitations. Take the case of 17 year-old Sandra, for example. Sandra’s father insists that she come home at 9p.m. on the weekends, whereas her friends are typically allowed to stay out till midnight. Since her father’s strict rule ruins Sandra’s social life, she resents him – in fact, she says she “hates” him. Sandra feels that her father doesn’t understand how important her social life is to her and when she tries to explain it to him, he seems more interested in his own rules than in her happiness and well-being. As a result, her affection for the man is seriously compromised. An overly strict parent will not be able to have a warm, loving relationship with his or her kids because the parent’s standards convey lack of empathy for the child. Even if the parent applies strict rules and standards out of love, as most do, it is not the love that the child experiences, but rather, the unreasonableness of the rules and standards. True love has to take the child’s feelings into account.
The second criteria for overly strict parenting is the effect on the child’s behavior and performance. When a parent puts reasonable boundaries and limits on a child in a loving and flexible way, the child thrives. For instance, parents who limit computer time, insist on homework time, impose a bedtime and demand punctuality for school, actually help their children learn to function well – providing all these fixed times are appropriate and reasonable for the child’s age and personal limitations (this is where flexibility comes in). However, when parents raise the bar too high with overly strict rules and regulations (i.e. the computer time is virtually non-existent, the homework time is excessively long, the bedtime is unreasonably early and the morning routine is so tight as to be unpleasant), children often react with poor behavior of various types. When a child becomes sneaky, manipulative and/or dishonest, it can be an indication that the rules are too many and/or too strict. Children have to survive somehow and one way is by breaking the rules constantly. However, since overly strict parents also tend to be punitive, the kids become experts at devious behavior. On the other hand, in homes where the standards are reasonable and the child can breathe freely, there is no need for deceptive behavior; the child is able to comply with parental demands without resorting to lies and games. In short, the more deceptive your child is, the more likely it is that a parent is being overly strict.
Finally, we can look at the child’s emotional health. When parents are warm, understanding and reasonable, children thrive emotionally. On the other hand, when parents are intimidating, rigid and unreasonable (overly strict), then children can manifest various types of stress reactions. Some kids develop eating disorders. Some develop addictive behaviors. Some have anxiety. Others get depressed. Some don’t seem to react at the time they are dealing with an unreasonable parent, but later on in life, develop trauma syndromes or personality problems related to the dysfunctional home in which they grew up. Although children suffer stress and emotional problems for many reasons (some of them purely biological, others triggered by social and academic stress or personal traumatic experiences), living for a couple of decades with an overly strict parent is a definite stressor and can trigger both emotional issues and physical stress syndromes like headaches, stomach problems and other health problems.
If Your Spouse is Too Strict
Parents who are strict usually love their kids and have no desire to hurt them. They just want them to grow up “right.” They cannot see the damage they are causing. However, one thing is clear: you cannot get your spouse to lighten up by reprimanding him or her for being too strict. Criticizing the strict spouse for his or her parenting approach simply makes the person feel unsupported. The spouse is likely to turn against YOU for “siding” with the children.
Instead of attacking your spouse for overly strict parenting, PRAISE him or her for wise and compassionate parenting. No one is strict on every issue all the time. Let’s say that your overly strict wife decides to let your son sleep over at a friend’s house on a school night. You can say something like, “That was really nice of you. I know that Jay really appreciates that. He’s lucky to have a mom like you!” Of course, do this in a way that sounds genuinely appreciative and definitely NOT sarcastic! By attending to appropriate parenting behaviors, you can reinforce this kind of parenting and help extinguish overly strict tendencies.
Another step you can take is to talk to your spouse about how much the kids love him or her. This helps the overly strict parent relax into more relationship-oriented (as opposed to rule-oriented) parenting.
When your spouse is overly strict to children in front of you, don’t intervene unless there is an issue of physical or emotional abuse (of the kind that Family Services would call “abuse”). If you disagree with his or her intervention, but it is not abusive, then let it go – until you have a private moment with your spouse. When clearly out of earshot of the kids, you can then talk to your partner. Start off by describing what you think is right about your partner’s intervention (i.e. “I’m so glad you laid down the law about homework time! These kids need to apply themselves more seriously to their schoolwork.”) Only AFTER naming the positive side of your parnter’s intervention, should you go on to attempt to modify the overly strict side of it (“I’m just thinking that 3 hours might be too much for them right after school and I was wondering how you would feel if we knocked that down to two hours, with one hour before dinner and one hour after dinner. That would leave them time for their extra-curricular activities which I think are also important for their development. What do you think?”). This sort of approach is far less confrontational than direct accusations (“the kids are going to hate your guts if you lay down rules like that for them”). As a result, it has a better chance of helping your partner learn to address the child’s needs and feelings as he or she is setting rules and limits.