Most couples survive the first 18 months of their children’s lives by tag-teaming through the intense physical labor and sleep disruptions of childcare, and putting their needs as a married couple on hold. Then, the child’s language skills and mobility arrive, and the parents are taken by surprise. A healthy toddler is full of emotion and curiosity, especially about him- or herself. The toddler’s appetite for autonomy causes parents uncertainty about what their growing child now feels and needs. That uncertainty, mixed with the new intensity of toddlerhood, can make life feel out of control in unexpected ways. This takes a toll on co-parenting couples in particular because mothers and fathers rarely see this phase the same way. Mothers tend to take the ‘goway-goway’ arguments that toddlers tend to relish as personal insults, whereas Dads tend to see the new feistiness as a sign of growing self-esteem, not an affront to authority. Needless to say, these are not exactly ‘same page’ perspectives, but they are so common that it’s important for couples to respect and understand them both as variations of normal – not right vs. wrong. Here is some advice on where to begin to prevent conflict:
- Tip the odds in your favor by child-proofing the house. While it is your life and space, it’s better to be prepared.
- Give him or her noisy (real) toys or objects like pots and pans in a place where he or she is safe, so that he or she can explore chaos/noise/physical power/aggression in healthy doses.
- Divide up your time with him or her so that you each get breaks. One-on-one parenting makes more sense in toddlerhood than in infancy or older stages because a toddler’s intensity can provoke conflict between parents very quickly. For example, when he or she is outside and suddenly doffs his or her clothes, should one laugh, discipline or both? Parents should avoid yelling at each other about what the other parent should do.
- Keeping the toddler safe is the first rule. Discuss your positive or negative reactions to the toddler’s behavior with each other later. Your toddler probably is not interested in or receptive to such perceptions, although he or she will be sooner than you think.
- Prearrange a signal for those moments when you are approaching meltdown and need urgent assistance from your partner – a tag-team ‘change’ sign. Fresh horses make the trip ‘back home’ a lot safer for everyone.
Finally, another challenge in co-parenting a toddler is worth acknowledging: the other partner’s perceived ‘lack of consistency’ in dealing with the toddler’s provocative behavior. When disciplining a child, one parent may unintentionally undermine the other, causing the other parent to feel angry or withdraw emotionally. To avoid this dead end, support your partner first and discuss your feelings later. Keep the conversation light and start with the personal pronoun “I” instead of “You.” Remember that you’re both in this together.
For more advice, see the Co-parenting Preventive Maintenance quiz (p. 44) in Partnership Parenting, my book with my wife, Marsha Kline Pruett.