For many women, being pregnant is one of the most exciting times in their lives, and while stretch marks, constipation and swollen feet may bring minor dismay, it still does little to diminish the joyful anticipation of meeting their babies for the first time. But many parents fail to realize that those first days and weeks of being Mom and Dad to a tiny infant who does little more than eat or sleep eventually give way to years of parenting adolescents and teens who have free-willing minds, distinct personalities and, often, a tendency to butt heads with the very people who love them the most. And it’s in these moments of arguing and talking back, shouting matches and empty threats, that many parents have had to accept the reality that—despite that unwavering, unfailing, unconditional love—they don’t actually like their child.
It may be the source of the most intense parent guilt ever, but the notion of a man or woman clashing so intensely with his or her own son or daughter isn’t new or particularly uncommon. In fact, it happens more than most soccer moms in picture-perfect suburbia would let on. “No one tells a soon-to-be parent that there will be times they don’t like their children,” says Jenise Harmon, a family psychotherapist in Columbus, Ohio. “No child is perfect, and even though parents don’t say it, everyone has, at one time or another, disliked their child.”
That may sound incredibly discouraging, like the only way to maintain some sense of peace is to ship your son or daughter off to boarding school, reserving close interactions for holidays and bi-annual family reunions. But there’s hope. With these tips, you can move past the animosity and hurt feelings to recreate a relationship that is both loving and respectful.
Examine the cause of the tension
If you’re brave enough to acknowledge that you have less-than-happy feelings for your child, that admission is sure to come wrapped in heavy layers of guilt. But don’t waste it, says Darby Fox, a child and adolescent family therapist. “If you’re feeling guilty, use this discomfort to really analyze what you don’t like about your child,” she suggests. “Are you disappointed because the child is not who you expected them to be? Is your child very different from you and you can’t connect? Is your child always acting out or challenging you? Is the child really the source of your anguish, or are your frustrations your own unresolved issues that are getting projected onto the child?”
As they begin to ask questions and dig deeper into the issue, parenting strategist Natalie Blais, believes that many parents will find fear at the root. “Quite often, parents feel fear when something is not going perfectly,” she says. “They are afraid someone will judge their parenting. Afraid their kid won’t listen and will be poorly behaved and embarrass them in public. Afraid they aren’t a good parent. Afraid they are failing as a parent. When [parents] can begin to recognize the emotion in the moment, they can start to turn how they see the interaction.”
Recognize the different roles of parents and children
What if you were told that you weren’t going crazy, and that it really was your child’s sole mission on earth to break all the rules as quickly as possible, thereby angering and/or frustrating you beyond belief? And what if you were then told that it’s part of his very nature, the way he was internally wired long before he ever left the womb, and that, once you understood this inalienable truth, your perception of your child’s behavior would change dramatically?
“The inherent conflict between parent and child begins pre-birth,” explains Dr. Nancy Buck, Ph.D., author of How to Be a Great Parent. “As soon as a woman discovers she is going to become a parent—whether through biology or otherwise—she immediately begins worrying about the health and well-being of the child. Have I been eating the right things? Getting enough rest? Drinking any, or too much, alcohol.
“Children are born, and the last thing they worry about is being safe. Children want to go out into the world, explore, discover, jump in mud puddles, put everything in their mouths, get in every moving vehicle, cross the street and on and on,” says Buck. The purpose of Peaceful Parenting, a parenting practice developed by Buck, is to help parents honor their child’s desire to be free to learn and explore while teaching their child how to do this and stay safe.
Realize that you are the problem
It may be hard to swallow, but Fox believes a poor parent-child relationship cannot be blamed solely on your daughter’s unwillingness to clean her room. “Disliking your child is more about you than the child,” she says. “How you react to your child sets the stage for how the child will behave. Children are very perceptive, and they not only feel your discomfort, but they can feed off it. Your anger and resentment most likely spurs your child’s negative responses, and then you are both caught in a powerful cycle of negativity.”
The solution, she says, is to acknowledge your feelings and then (gasp!) begin to accept responsibility and explore exactly what your role in the problem may be.
Talk it out
According to Leslie Petruk, director of The Stone Center for Counseling and Leadership in Charlotte, NC, parents either struggle with a child who is most like them because the child (or his behavior) reflects a part of themselves that they don’t like or want to acknowledge, or they have issues with a child who is least like them because they don’t understand or relate to their behavior and feel frustrated and inadequate. But regardless of the situation, Petruk believes it is important for parents to share their feelings of dislike with someone else.
“If it’s a fleeting occurrence that comes and goes, give yourself a break and know that it is normal to dislike your child at times, just as you may go through fleeting moments of disliking your spouse,” she says. “Talk with friends who are supportive and non-judgmental who can relate to your frustrations and support you.
“If it is an ongoing struggle, it’s worth exploring what is getting triggered in you and uncovering the parts of you that may need some attention and healing. Parents tend to recreate the dynamics of their own family of origin if they don’t do their own healing, and that can lead to feelings of inadequacy as a parent. Get support from a professional therapist or parenting coach to help you identify your triggers, and learn how to respond in a way that requires less emotional energy and helps you gain confidence as a parent.”
Once you’ve done the work to address your own issues and contribution to the problem, the next—and final—step on the road to love and healing for you and your child is to spend some quality time reconnecting.
“The love connection between people changes as relationships mature,” says Mark Loewen, a parent coach in Richmond, Virginia. “A parent connects differently with a baby than with a small child or a teenager. Parents can reconnect with their child by taking a step back and thinking about how their child would like to connect with them. By providing a point of connection that resonates with the child, it is more likely that the child will exhibit a more pleasant response. Take it slow, and find short and frequent moments of connecting throughout the week.”
Loewen suggests finding fun and relaxing activitues to do as a family, as well as taking time to really listen to your child talk about her interests or experiences. Finally, he says, go easy on yourself.
“Parenting is a very hard job. No family is happily ever after, but with targeted efforts at having more positive experiences, relationships can become more enjoyable.”