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"I Love My Child...But Sometimes I Can't Stand Him!"

by James Lehman, MSW
I Love My Child...But Sometimes I Can't Stand Him!

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.

  • Flip the Script:

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.

 


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

READER'S COMMENTS

Great, SOLID advice. Thank you :)

Comment By : Debbie

My child has severe behavior and blames everything on everyone else. He can't fess up to the littlest thing. He says if he's not happy no one can be. He is 11 and has betrayed friends twice when his "girlfriend" broke up with him -- instead of showing sadness he turned around and said he liked THEIR "girlfriends". His friends dumped him. He is so afraid to show vulnerability, that he sacrifices everything to not do so. I am so sad that I have done things that have made him narcissistic. Is there advice for a narcissistic child? I overreacted to things and didn't validate him enough. I've been doing your program from a year now, and sometimes it works, but he's who he is. Trying hard is not working for me, and I'm scared it's too late for him to become a healthy person. I'm a single mom and never had someone else to temper what I couldn't. I have done lots right, loved and taken care of him, but until I started your program, I didn't do enough right. Hoping...

Comment By : Concerned Mom

very good article and right on time!

Comment By : 4boys5

Hi, I think this article is great It brings us back to the better perspective. Helps us to ficus on the positive solution. Also helps us to realize we are not alone.

Comment By : Lioness

We have the Total Transformation program and this is one of the things that really stood out for me and helped get things into perspective: Don't compare your insides to everybody else's outsides. I have always spouted versions of this (my version was: everybody is crazy once you get to know them, different words, same concept), but when I heard this on the program it really hit home with the situation with my son. It helped with understanding that things may not be as bad as I feared in comparison to others (not that it should matter, but somehow it does). It was a wonderful "aha" moment. Thank you James. It is an important point to remember.

Comment By : MT

Thank you very much for sharing this article. It helps me realize more fully my teenage daughter's behavior is quite typical. This insight helps me feel less guilty, and more patient, tolerant, and empathic. Your suggestions are great. I plan to incorporate them to improve my relationship with her, and consequently, improve her behavior.

Comment By : Cindy

Great article at the right time. Your insights are very sound and wise. Thank you.

Comment By : Mom_in_TX

With two teenage daughters in the house it seems we are always dealing with someone's negative attitude. I like to think that the only 'normal' families are the ones we don't know very well. It keeps me from completely losing my cool -- and my mind!

Comment By : girlmom

Thank you for your article. I love both my sons. The defiant one is certainly harder to deal with. I get weary. He is usually oppositional and makes trouble during the day, and at night he wants a sweet snuggle. (He is 10). I am wondering if we find a charity or some good cause to represent. Maybe his negative energy can be channeled into a positive direction. Both my kids, really we all do better when we feel we are doing something good for others. I need help to follow through and not just have good ideas I don't follow up on.

Comment By : Mary

I have an 18 year old who acts out by breaking my things. I am begining to think this is mental illness. Please help

Comment By : mar

We have a family photo in a frame that reads: "Remember...as far as anyone else knows...we ARE a normal family!" My son chose it a few years ago...he was probably 12yrs. Dealing with him can/does get difficult and how we handle it is not always the way we'd have wanted...but it was good to know that he loves us (as we love him!) and that he knows deep down...we're all doing the best we can...

Comment By : AGGIEMOM

* Dear ‘Concerned Mom’: One of the things James Lehman teaches in his program is to focus on behavior and not attitude. He says, “You can’t feel your way to better behavior but you can behave your way to better feelings.” He would recommend that you not become too involved in guessing what might be the feelings or the underlying reasons for your son’s behavior but instead, just focus on the behavior itself. All adolescents are naturally self-centered and will grow out of this focus in time. But not all adolescents blame everything on everyone else. I’m not sure by what you mean when you say you ‘over reacted to things and didn’t validate him enough.’ It can be very challenging as a parent to not take our kid’s behaviors personally. Sometimes kids get into the habit of blaming other’s to avoid feelings of shame or humiliation if a parent over reacts emotionally. So make sure that you talk about his behavior after you and he have calmed down. Study the techniques in Lesson 6 of the Total Transformation program, which describe the Alternative Response Process. This lesson will give you the frame work to confront his faulty thinking—that everyone else is to blame. Try not to look at your son as someone who will probably not change for the better. Instead, recognize that his poor behavior choices are opportunities to teach him how to solve problems in more socially acceptable ways. The Support Line is ready to discuss program techniques with you. We would be delighted if you would give us the opportunity to work alongside you as you help your son reach his behavior goals.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I really enjoyed reading the article, do you think counseling will help my son. He is always getting in trouble at school, he does not do his homework and always angry and argues about every thing.

Comment By : concern mom

We have two 9-year-old sons, whom we adopted from Russia when they were both 4 years old. Neither showed any signs of FAS, according to a specialist who studied their photos. They had each been in an orphanage for two years previous to the adoption, and came from single mothers who abandoned them to the system. They continually fight with each other. One (let's call him A) seems to be passive aggressive, and will goad the other (B), who I think has ODD, until B cracks and becomes violent. Then he pretends to be the blameless injured party. It doesn't always happen that way, but we think that's what's going on a lot of the time. We have talked to A about it, and told him he bears part blame for his brother's rages, but we don't want to make him responsible for his brother's lack of control. B gets an adrenaline rush and can't/won't stop himself from flying into a fit. This also happens when he is pushed to do a challenging task or homework, or gets caught doing something naughty and is called on it. If we use any kind of harsh tone with him, he reacts badly. He has had this problem since the day we got him in Russia, and it seems to be escalating. Last week he kicked a hole in the wall. He has physically and verbally abused both his father and me, to the point of leaving bruises and bite marks on us, calls us terrible names and threatens to hurt or kill us. We do not cater to his out-of-control rages, nor do we pussyfoot around just to avoid his becoming angry. He will not rule our household, and we've told him so. We understand that he was physically abused by teenaged boys in his orphanage, but don't let that be an excuse for him to behave badly here. We try to get him to slow down, take a time out, and breathe deeply and slowly until it passes, but if we don't catch him before he gets even a little angry, he refuses to help himself. He will become self abusive, hitting his head on the wall or door (seeking attention, we know, but damaging to himself) until we try to stop him. He has damaged our house in several ways as well, as I mentioned above. It sometimes comes to the point of simply holding him down while he struggles and hits us, until the adrenaline ebbs and he collapses in exhaustion (as do we) as much as an hour later. We have come to the point of canceling a family vacation and his birthday party, putting our sons in separate bedrooms even though they would rather share, and removing B's entire bed from his room (after he kicked and banged his head on the wooden headboard and jumped on the mattress one too many times). He is now sleeping on a pad on the floor (which is awkward, as he still wets the bed), and still sometimes bangs his head on the wall in lieu of a headboard. He is a sweet, loving, intelligent child when he isn't stressed, and we want to do the right thing for him before he destroys our family, himself and our house. We know it is especially important to stop this behaviour before he becomes an adolescent, and big enough to throw us across the room. He behaves well at school, and although he is large for his age and very strong (tough Siberian stock), he sometimes is bullied, because he has a very strong sense of right and wrong (until he gets angry, of course). He does best in a very structured environment, but this isn't always possible at home, though we do our best to establish and stick to routines. We have your TT program, but haven't worked through the whole thing yet to find out just what to do. We need some immediate help, until we can listen to the whole program and figure out a plan. What can we do right now? Installing a padded cell in our house is not an option!

Comment By : Tired of Fighting

* Dear “Tired of Fighting”: What we would suggest is to use the Total Transformation program in addition to working with a professional in your area. When you’re dealing with self-harming behaviors, this type of physical violence, and threats of severe violence, don’t try to do this work alone without the guidance of a mental health counselor in your area. Since he has a history of abuse, look for a counselor who specializes in trauma. Your son will need help working with his emotions as you learn more effective ways to set limits, coach him and help him problem solve. This isn’t a quick fix. James Lehman suggests moving through the program one week per lesson because change takes practice and time. The professional counselor will recommend the best way to manage him when he becomes upset. We recommend using crisis services in your area, such as your local emergency room, if your son is not able to control himself and is harming himself or others. You might try calling ‘211’ which is the number for the United Way. The United Way may be able to put you in touch with case management services to help coordinate the health care your family needs. Don’t hesitate to call the Support Line for ideas and encouragement. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

My son doesn't want to keep up with his chores at home. We discuss what needs to be done, he will do it for the time but the next day its the same fight. This has been going on for several years and now his relationship with my husband is bad. School work is another issue for him. Its difficult for him so he decides he is not doing it. He either starts an assignment and doesn't finish or doesn't do it at all. When his teachers try to help him he get very angry and offended. He normally will talk out of the ordinary when he is called out on these problems. He currently has a 504 in place but the only thing that does is allow extra time to complete work and on tests. He refuses to write his assignments down and just doing school work. Could someone give me advise.

Comment By : Tired

I have a 10 year old child that has been diagnosed with ADHD! She is taking meds (of which are not working)! She is becoming so controlling with everyone around her. Our home is a battle ground at night time. It amazes me how my child can be good at school, no conduct problems, but at home it is unreal! Sometimes when I come home from work it is if I have to walk on egg shells. One of the many problems that is happening now, is when I receive a phone call or having a conversation with a neighbor my child has to know everything that is being said and what it means. If my child thinks I am keeping something hidden you might as well know that the night will be a long one. I know this may sound so trivial, but this is all the time and everyday event. If we have company over she will do something to become the center of attention, negative or positive. Her back talk has gotten so bad that I am just not sure what to do anymore. She has become abusive to our pets. If she gets upset about anything at all and they pass her way, she will kick them and then blame them for being in her way. I do relate to the saying "I love my child but I sure dont like them lately". I need help in understanding how to deal with my child.

Comment By : nannamomma

* Dear NanaMomma - You don't mention if your child is seeing a counselor or other professional in your area, but we strongly encourage you to seek support and assistance. Abusing animals is serious, and everyone in your household deserves to be safe. You might also consider becoming a Total Transformation customer; the program outlines step-by-step plans to help you and your child learn to solve problems and improve her skills. In addition, customers have access to Support Line specialists who can help you customize a plan for your family. I encourage you to address the physical aggression issues first, by helping your daughter come up with safer, more appropriate ways of dealing with her feelings. Once your household has become safer for everyone, you can begin to work on the other issues in your home. Good luck, and please keep in touch.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear ‘Tired’: It can be frustrating, but James Lehman, author of the Total Transformation program, tells us that it’s not uncommon to need to coach your child every day, to check in on them and to keep them on track. Try using a daily incentive for completing his chores every day. Here’s a very helpful article by James: 6 Ways to Get Kids to do Chores Now, at http://www.empoweringparents.com/How-to-Get-Kids-to-Do-Chores.php. You might also use daily incentives for doing homework each day. Setting up a structure that requires your child to do homework first and then earn privileges, helps keep kids on track. However, you mention that the homework is hard for him and that he has a 504 plan. Be sure to work closely with the school to determine if the amount of homework is appropriate, that he is being asked to do the work he is capable of or if there is any tutoring available for him. We appreciate your question and wish the best for your family.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Liked this articule a lot. I have a 15 year old ADHD teen that I OFTEN feel I don't like and that can be a guilty feeling. He is more work then my two autistic kids! This helpled remind me that I need to let him know that I don't like his behavior (not him) and to above all remain calm. This too will pass!

Comment By : Patty

This article was very helpful to me. (I have a 12 year old ODD daughter) I'm a TT customer and just started the program this week. WOW! Wish I had it 7 years ago. I strongly recommend it to families with acting out kids. I've already seen some small changes in our house. Thank GOD for James Lehman and the work he did/continues to do.

Comment By : Robin

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