You’d do anything for your child, but you feel guilty about admitting the truth, even to yourself—sometimes you don’t like him very much. It’s a secret that many parents of acting-out kids share, but rarely confess to anyone. James Lehman explains how dealing with a difficult child can take its toll on the parent-child relationship, and he gives you some practical advice on how to handle it.
Not liking your child’s behavior is very different from not liking him as a person.
When parents say they don’t like their child, I think that dislike almost always stems from their child’s inappropriate behavior. These parents are understandably frustrated because they’re tired of the constant backtalk, yelling and arguing. Or they might not like the way their child treats them, their siblings, or their teachers at school. And personally, I can really understand that. This article is directed toward those parents.
I think there are also periods of time when parents don’t like their child because of a certain stage their son or daughter might be going through—adolescence, for example. As a father, I experienced this myself. When my son was eight or nine, he was a pretty good kid most of the time. I really liked being around him, and I couldn't imagine him ever leaving home, with all the unpredictability and risks that were involved. But by the time he was in his mid-teens, I disliked his behavior so much that I was ready for him to go.
A child’s individuation process (the time, usually during adolescence, when kids are forming their identities) almost always includes breaking away from their family. Sometimes that translates into obnoxious, annoying or self-involved behavior on the part of teenagers. And because the parent-child bond is so strong, that individuation process often becomes very strained and stressed for everyone as time goes on. For adolescents with unstable behavior, it can even become destructive or violent.
Another important part of this separation process is that the parent learns to let go—eventually, they want to push the child out into the world. They get tired of having this strong-willed, opinionated person in the house, making demands and arguing with them all the time. When their kids are in their late teens, many parents want them to go to college, find a job, move out, or rent an apartment with a friend. And I think that’s completely natural—it’s all part of your child growing up and starting a life of his own, even if it’s painful at times. It also helps the parents complete the parent/child part of the relationship and begin the parent/adult child relationship. These transitions are rarely without friction.
Do You Dislike Your Child—or Do You Dislike His Behavior?
Here’s an important distinction I’d like to make again: not liking your child’s behavior is very different from not liking him as a person. That’s hard to define for a lot of parents, because a child’s behavior becomes part of his personality in some ways. In fact, you often can't see where he ends and the behavior begins. And it's not only his behavior—he also might be using his personality to confront, attack or demean you. Physically, you also associate him with his personality: the words are coming out of your child’s mouth, after all. You can see the nasty look on your daughter’s face; you can hear the rude tone in your son’s voice. It’s easy to get frustrated and annoyed with those behaviors, and it becomes easy not to like the child who’s performing them.
A lot of my direction for parents is to not take this personally. Although this often feels like a personal attack upon you, it’s actually driven by other forces such as your child’s fears, frustrations, and the need to develop their own identity. Try not to fight it. No matter how hard it may be at times, I think the point is to avoid screaming at your child and getting into conflicts and unnecessary power struggles. Parents often take that kind of behavior personally, but remember, there are irresistible developmental forces taking place here, for both the parent and the child.
When You Can’t Stand Your Kid…
I think it’s important to realize that sometimes kids can be a pain in the neck, just like the rest of us. As parents of teens know, that behavior gets even more intense when children go through adolescence. The good news is that when your kids aren’t being pleasant and you feel yourself getting angry, there are effective ways to avoid taking their behavior personally.
One of the things I try to teach parents is to talk more positively to themselves. This may sound simplistic, but think of it this way: we all talk to ourselves all the time, because we think in words—and perhaps too much of the time, we think in negative words. Let’s say you’re driving home from work and you’re about to see your teenager. You’re saying, “I hope he's not going to start up again today. I'm so sick of his attitude.” Or, “I don't want to hear about my daughter’s boyfriend anymore; I can’t deal with her moodiness all the time.” Here’s the truth: If you're talking to yourself negatively on the way home, you're feeding into the problem. Instead, I recommend that you say things like, “What can I do differently so we won’t get into an argument as soon as I walk in the door tonight?” In other words, think more about the solution, and less about the problem. Talk to yourself about the skills you can bring to the situation.
One of the things I recommend to parents who work is to have the following rule with their kids: For the first ten minutes you are home, your kids should leave you alone. That way, you have enough time to go up to your bedroom, change your clothes, and get your head ready for parenting your children at night. Transitions, and by that I mean going from work to home or school to home, are difficult for both adults and children. Try to organize your time so that you’re taking that into account.
- Stop Comparing Your Insides with Other People’s Outsides
You may feel like people are looking at you and judging your parenting as inadequate when your child’s behavior is inappropriate. All of us hate being judged—all of us. And even if we deal with it effectively, that doesn't mean it's not a problem—it’s just that we don't take it personally anymore.
If your child is acting out, you might have tried to tell your parents, other relatives or friends about it in the beginning. But if this is a persistent problem, most people eventually get tired of talking about it. Even family members and friends can be very judgmental and critical. And when they are, it’s easy to experience that judgment as shame and guilt—you may feel as if others don’t see you as a good parent. It also doesn’t help that you’re experiencing doubt about your own parenting techniques, because they don’t seem to be working. And then whenever your child behaves inappropriately in front of those people, you re-feel that sense of shame. Those are heavy, powerful feelings, and many parents wind up resenting kids who behave inappropriately because of them.
What I always tell parents is, “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” So don’t compare the inside of your house with the outsides of other people’s houses—or the inside of your family with the outsides of other people's families. Other parents in your community might look like they're doing well and getting along. But you have to understand that from the outside, you may look good, too. The perception of your family might be that things are under control and everything's rolling right along in your home, even though on the inside you have problems you’re having difficulty managing. So other people are looking at your outside, you're looking at their outside, and everybody thinks everybody else is okay—but nobody knows the real truth unless they’ve lived it. This is also true on a personal level: comparing your emotional insides to other people’s physical outsides will only give you a skewed impression of what’s happening—and usually only makes you feel worse about your own situation. Don’t do it.
This is also one of the patterns that give adolescents so much trouble. They compare their insides to their classmates’ outsides—and the other kids may look like they’re popular and as if they fit in. This can cause your child a lot of distress.
My Child’s Inappropriate Behavior Embarrasses Me—What Should I Do?
I worked with a lot of parents who stopped taking their child to relatives’ or friends’ houses. This was because their child would act out in front of the relatives, and the parents simply didn’t want to hear it from their families and friends anymore. So they wound up giving in and letting their child stay home or go to a friend’s house because he behaved so inappropriately when they forced him to go anywhere. By the way, I’m not saying that finding an alternative place for your child to go is a bad tactic, depending upon his age and level of functioning. If your child is old enough to stay on his own and is stable, there’s nothing wrong with letting him stay home or go to a friend’s house if you take some safety precautions.
On the other hand, there are parents who believe their kids need to go with them to relatives’ and friends’ houses. And I understand that philosophy as well. Here are some things you can do to increase the chances that your child will behave when you take him somewhere:
Motivate Your Child to Practice Good Behavior: If you want your child to accompany you to a relative’s house but you’ve had trouble in the past, you can try the following things.
Tell your child you want to reward him for doing something that’s hard for him, like going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Two things are critical here: first, have your expectations for how you want your child to respond be both simple and clear. I suggest parents have an index card with three or four sentences on it. Each sentence should describe how you want your child to handle something. The card might read something like this:
- Respond to first request.
- Take a time-out when you need it.
- Ask Mom or Dad for help if you’re having a problem.
As you go over these three sentences with your child, describe what they mean. For instance, “Respond to first request: I don’t want to hear backtalk from you when I ask you to do something.” Or “If you feel like you need one, just take a time-out for a minute or two.” Hopefully, you have developed things your child can do in time-outs that help calm him down. You should also discuss where he can take a time-out at Grandma’s house, so he knows where he can go. And finally, if he finds himself starting to escalate or if he has a problem while you’re there, tell him to come to you and say, “Mom, can I talk to you for a minute?” All these things are now in play before you leave.
The second thing parents need to know is that the reward you offer your child for behaving appropriately should be immediate and in a currency your child wants. This might mean renting a movie that he gets to choose, or getting an ice cream cone on the way home. But it should be something that is real to your child and something he might be willing to work for.
Of course, this isn’t appropriate for kids of all age groups. But as children reach the age of five or six years old, these ideas can be introduced. These concepts may not work the first or second time, but they give you a direction to move in. Remember, we have two goals with kids at any time: the first is to get to bed tonight without a crisis, and the second is for them to learn problem-solving and coping skills over the long term. Tools like these can help achieve both goals.
Kids who resist and refuse to act appropriately may be oppositional and defiant. And again, it's easy not to like those kids. Most therapists will tell you that a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder is one of the hardest kinds of kids to work with. First they won't talk to you, then they lie, then they're abusive, then they're negative, then they blame everybody else for their problems. These are tough kids, and they're tough to like. Sometimes they're tough to love, too.
But I’ve found that most parents do love their children, even if they don’t always like their behavior. The way parents express that love is by taking care of their children, by being responsible, and by not being abusive. They also show love when they try to give their kids the tools they need to be able to function and perform successfully and find some happiness in this world when they attain adulthood.
I think if you’re resentful of your child’s behavior, you can get help. After all, you have a much better chance of improving the situation if you find some true insight and receive effective coaching on how to manage your child. And don’t be afraid to ask others for help—or to ask how they deal with their families.
Remember, unless your child has severe behavioral problems, being argumentative and annoying—especially during adolescence—is usually a developmental phase they’re going through. Don’t get me wrong, it's often a long phase and a difficult one. Sometimes kids don’t gravitate back to their parents until they reach their mid-twenties, or even until they start to raise families of their own. But in my experience, most of the time parents and kids are eventually able to find a way to have a good relationship again—especially if the parent is willing to put in the time to help their child change their behavior now, when it counts.