Family Therapy: Avoiding the “Good/Cop Bad Cop” Trap With Kids
Establishing a healthy parenting balance ensures both caregivers share the burden of enforcing rules and saying no.
“I’m so tired of being ‘bad cop,’” a mom said during our session. “I want to be the fun parent for once.”
The refrain is familiar. And it’s not always Mom. Sometimes Dad is tired of dashing dreams of sleepovers and ice cream before dinner. Depending on the family, parents of both persuasions complain about always being “the mean one.”
You can’t blame them. The rule-setting parent thinks it must be fun to be the “cool” parent, always saying yes to whatever the kids want. Ironically, that’s not how the “cool” parent always sees it. Often, they want to set boundaries, too, but nobody takes them seriously when they try.
The idea of “bad cop” isn’t necessarily a negative if you’re in the interrogation business. That person acts as the tough guy, threatening and scaring a suspect, while “good cop” uses kindness and reasoning to convince them to cooperate. But families aren’t police precincts, and kids aren’t criminal suspects. (Sure, they might act suspiciously, but we don’t send them to jail for breaking a lamp and blaming their sister.) And no parent wants to be thought of as mean all the time.
But the family system often sets up that way. Family system sounds like a fancy term, but it basically means that families repeat patterns that help them function day to day. Those patterns aren’t inherently good or bad; they just need to be predictable and efficient. As part of that, every family system needs a balance between yes and no. Sometimes kids need to roam freely and learn from their mistakes. Sometimes they need a hard boundary that protects them from wounds that cut too deep. The job of setting that boundary often falls on “bad cop” rather than a healthy balance of both parents taking turns being the heavy.
There are solutions, of course, that might sound unrealistic in their simplicity. “Bad cop” could let their partner take on more responsibility. The “cool” parent could have a specific area where they have the final say. The parents could talk about issues in advance to make sure they’re on the same page rather than winging it in the moment (my personal favorite, by the way). They could even try taking turns being in charge: Mom takes Monday-Wednesday-Friday, Dad takes Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday, and they flip a coin for Sunday. (For a real hoot, the kids could be in charge on Sundays. Let them feel the heaviness of the crown.) There are countless ways to take pressure off when one parent feels like the Negative Nellie of the family.
But that’s easier said than done, because there’s a payoff in every behavior or choice that repeats. (Remember, family systems are about patterns.) So being “bad cop” pays off for that parent in some way. Maybe they don’t trust their partner to make good decisions. Maybe they’re trying to solve problems before they get too big. Maybe they’re just taking the hit so the kids don’t get mad at “good cop.” Whatever the reason, the intervention undermines their partner with the kids, creating a system where the kids learn all that matters is what “bad cop” says. The popular parent becomes more like an older sibling in the system.
Systems can change, though. The key is to do something differently than what the system expects. If “bad cop” changes what they do, the rest of the system has to change how it responds; for example, kids will get the message if the rule-setter trusts their partner to be an equal parent. The other parent will feel it, too, and be more willing to make tough parenting choices.
Start small. Pick one area where the popular parent can be in charge, then ignore the temptation to get involved “just to help.” That’s how parents get sucked into being “bad cop” in the first place.
Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Online Family Counseling.
This story is from the Spring 2022 issue of Columbus Parent.