Angelina Jolie has filed for divorce from Brad Pitt, citing irreconcilable differences. According to multiple reports, she is seeking physical custody of their six children, with visitation rights for Pitt.
My 20 years of research and observation as a child and adolescent family therapist, as well as my own experience as a parent, have confirmed that the most effective parenting style is a combination of high structure and high nurture. It is difficult enough to stay on course with this when both parents subscribe to the same style. But when couples approach parenting from very different philosophies, many begin to struggle.
This reportedly is a factor for Jolie and Pitt, whose children range in age from 8 to 15. And it is no surprise if the reports are true. TMZ, citing sources, reports that Jolie is extremely upset with Pitt's parenting style, and that the divorce has a lot to do with how he's raising the kids. More specifically, TMZ reports that Angelina became "fed up" with Brad's consumption of marijuana and possibly alcohol, and that she believes he also has "an anger problem" that has become dangerous for the children.
If the reports are accurate, the couple’s conflicting styles and their complicated travel and work schedules would cause confusion and fighting among the entire family. Jolie and Pitt have stated for years that they try to have one parent constantly with the children. This only works if the parents have the same rules and expectations for their children. Otherwise, it is a recipe for disaster.
If the reports are accurate, the couple’s conflicting styles and their complicated travel and work schedules would cause confusion and fighting among the entire family.
Children become confused when they do not know what to expect from their parents, and they learn to be reactive and overly responsive as opposed to calm and happy. This “ambivalent attachment” is further complicated when the parents disagree on how to parent. A husband and wife may not consider it an issue when their children are young, because young children are easier to handle. But as children develop their own character and question or resist more frequently, parenting styles take on new significance.
Consistency, rules and firm boundaries are as important as affection. Jolie and Pitt’s different styles not only confuse the kids, but they can drive a wedge between the couple. Children quickly learn which parent to go to, depending on what they need. For example, if one parent is extremely permissive and the other is authoritarian, children learn to work their different styles when they need reassurance or a reprieve from discipline.
A family that should operate fairly predictably based on common boundaries and goals becomes chaotic and divisive, with constant power struggles underlying any decision. The parents, in turn, become competitive and mistrusting, and then the wedge between them is difficult to repair. Small children will be hard to soothe, lack self-esteem and withdraw when they are in the middle of different parenting styles.
Parenting styles that clash become especially toxic when families begin to deal with the arrival of the teenage years. Adolescents normally seek more independence from their parents. They may act out or withdraw completely, resisting one or both parents. If the parents are in constant disagreement about what their teenager can or cannot do, the teen quickly learns to put them in the middle, blaming one or the other for their behavior. This way, the parents argue with each other, and the teen can pursue drinking, sneaking out to parties or promiscuity with greater freedom. Jolie and Pitt now have children who will want to have more control over their own lives. Two parents who are used to being the center of attention and now have to accommodate their increasingly independent adolescents will likely meet this demand with great stress.
The parents’ conflict will be mirrored by the adolescents as they engage in risky behavior. The constant turmoil in the house becomes very destructive, and no family member escapes the harm.
It is not a surprise when the differences become irreconcilable. Without the ability to agree on how to handle the demanding needs of growing children, the rift becomes personal, and the constant battle takes a great a toll on the marriage and the family.
Parents who find themselves constantly disagreeing about how best to care for their kids should seek professional help before the marriage or the children suffer irreparable damage.
In the case of Jolie-Pitt, the family will need time and perhaps counseling to heal not only from the divorce, but from the turmoil they have no doubt been living with for some time.
Darby Fox is a Child & Adolescent Family Therapist with over 20 years of experience providing individual and group therapy in both non-profit and private settings. For more information visit www.DarbyFox.com. Follow Darby on Twitter @AskDarbyFox.