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Competitive coparenting is bad news for children

Photo: Sander van der Wel. Creative Commons.

"Competitive coparenting" is when both parents are involved in parenting but undermine each other in the presence of the child and jockey for control.

“Competitive coparenting” is when both parents are actively involved in parenting but undermine each other in the presence of the child and jockey for control. The parents may be openly competing to be the ‘favourite’; they may contradict each other in front of the child; they may try to create an alliance with the child against the other parent.

We did an experiment with 108 families. When the child was 2 years old, we put him/her together with both parents and watched them cope with a 25-minute exercise that was designed to put some time pressure on the parents and to require them to work together and discuss things. (The parents had to feed and dress the child and complete a card-sorting activity that required discussion about looking after children; if the parents got through all that before the 25 minutes was up, they had to help the child with a peg-sorting challenge.)

Then, five years later, we asked the child’s teachers about his/her behaviour. We found children whose parents had worked together less well and competed more showed more poor behaviour – lack of attention, hyperactivity and disobedience.

But perhaps the bad behaviour was linked to other negative things in the families where parents are not working together well – arguments, tension, distress? But we carefully disentangled all these influences through sophisticated statistics and we still found that the likelihood of bad behaviour at 7 is linked more to the “competitive coparenting” of the parents than all these other things.

The lesson is clear: if you parent together, don’t compete! It really does the child no good.