Raising a child is like building a house – when the foundation has cracks, you will face one problem after another until the whole thing comes crashing down. Part of the foundation of child rearing is parental authority. If someone is undermining a parent’s authority – whether it is the other parent or a grandparent, friend or other relative, this undermining can unleash a domino effect-like chain of problems, which can plague a child into adulthood.
Children under 6 old think in concrete terms, according to Dr. Laurence Steinberg, author of "The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting." They see the world in black and white, and they understand behavior as right or wrong. When one of the parents undermines the other, then that sends mixed messages to the child. The child wants to respect both parents, but one parent is telling the child not to follow what the other parent says or does. This confuses the child, because it gives the child inconsistent messages. With such inconsistent messages, children often test boundaries and are willing to go head-to-head with parents in power struggles because they know they might win with one parent. For example, if one parent is lax with bedtime rules, the child learns that it is worth it for her to fight or throw a tantrum because she might win the battle with the parent who is lax with rules, and thus she will get to stay up later.
Inconsistent messages undermining parental authority can lead to behavioral problems such as aggression and negative attention-seeking behaviors. When children do not respect authority or boundaries, they will go to extreme lengths to continue to push boundaries. This starts as early as toddlerhood when children go through a tantrum phase. If parental authority is not established in young childhood, establishing it can become more difficult when children are pre-teens or teens. The tantrums continue, but when the child grows bigger, and becomes more clever and bold, consequences have far more serious consequences. Children are more likely to continue challenging authority as they get older and more independent. This extends to children challenging not only parental authority, but other authority figures, as well. Anger and acting out become the child's way of problem solving, and of drawing attention when they feel they’re not getting what they want. This behavior can continue into adulthood.
Manipulation happens when parents -- whether living together or separately -- do not uphold discipline consistently and stick to the same sets of boundaries and consequences. It can also happen when a regular caregiver -- whether it is a paid childcare provider, friend or relative -- does not uphold the parent’s wishes. Children learn to take advantage of the situation by playing adults against each other to further their own self-interest. For example, a child might bring a note from a teacher home to a more lenient father rather than face consequences with a stricter mother, or a child may coax a soft-hearted grandparent into sweets when the parents are at work. Unfortunately, manipulation becomes a habit and the child learns to become increasingly good at it.
Parents can often easily sway a child, and when one adult or authority figure tells a child that a parent is always wrong, too strict or does not really care, a child may come believe those words. The child can lose respect for the parent, viewing her as not an authority figure, but as a nuisance. He may stop trusting the parent or question the parent’s motives. For example, he may see the parent as out to get him or trying to take away his fun. At worst, a child can come to view the parent as an enemy rather than a caring guardian, and this kind of thinking can ultimately damage the child-parent relationship. Sometimes this damage is irreparable.