When You Don’t Like Your Child

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An interview with Jennifer Waldburger, MSW

It’s the ugly truth – sometimes our beloved children are incredibly unlikable. Often, this feeling passes. But for some of us, this dislike of our children remains long-term and can be very upsetting. While the situation might feel untenable, Jennifer Waldburger, LCSW says this agonizing feeling is potentially a gift. She shares some insight on how to open it. – TMC

How common is it for moms to feel they actually don’t like their child?

I think it’s important to distinguish between a passing feeling of not liking your child, and a feeling that is chronic.

Most moms who feel they don’t like their child are going through a developmental phase with a child who may be acting out, talking back, and defiant.  These phases can last weeks or even a couple of months, and they’re certainly no picnic.  It’s perfectly OK – and very common! – not to like your child’s mood and behavior, even though you love him underneath it all. There’s a big difference between “I don’t like what my child is doing” and “I don’t like my child” – the former is temporary and refers to behavior, whereas the latter goes well beyond a phase and indicates troubled dynamics in the parent-child relationship.

It’s hard to know how many moms fall into the category of a genuine dislike of their child, as such a situation is difficult to admit and talk about. That said, more moms are speaking up.

How do you recommend moms deal with the issue of the short-term disliking?

First, know that every child goes through these phases sooner or later, even the ones who seem so perfectly behaved on play dates or at school.  Most kids save up their strongest testing behavior for good ol’ mom and dad, in the privacy of home.  It’s actually a backhanded compliment – they feel safe enough with you to let their guard down and to unleash strong feelings of fear or anger they may be experiencing, as all young children do.

Sometimes the intense mood and behavior are related to changes that are temporarily rocking their world (new baby, new social dynamics at school), but sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint a root cause.  Kids may feel anxious as they’re maturing and becoming more independent from you; they may feel angry that they are no longer a baby but not yet a big kid, and they can’t find a foothold for their identity.  Often, kids will act cranky and defiant when they’re undergoing significant cognitive development, which of course you can’t see.  If your child’s behavior isn’t connected to a recent change in her external world, watch as she takes a big leap forward cognitively, emotionally or socially just after the difficult phase has passed.  Then the next time you’re going through a similar phase, you can remind yourself that it probably means she’s gearing up for an internal growth spurt.

Remember that every close relationship goes through ups and downs – periods where you feel more connected and those where you feel you’re on different pages, if not different planets.  It’s disconcerting when this happens with your child, because you’re supposed to love her unconditionally, no matter what.  When you go through a phase where you feel you don’t like her, you may panic:  Where did that heart-cracked-open feeling go?  Will it ever come back?  Don’t worry, your love is still there – it’s just harder to access when it feels like you’re on a battleground all the time.  As hard as it is, summon your deepest resolve not to engage in the battle; even if you’re the victor in a power struggle, it never feels good to “win.”  Take advantage of the many resources available these days – books, websites, workshops, private sessions – that offer guidance on positive discipline, parenting without power struggles, and teaching your child how to manage her feelings.  As you become more empowered with effective parenting strategies, you’ll find that she doesn’t push your buttons nearly as much.

For those moms who might be suffering from the more chronic version of not liking their child, how best to cope?

If your negative feelings toward your child are escalating to the point where you’re losing your temper regularly, or you still feel you don’t like him even after the difficult phase has passed, it’s time to take a deeper look at what’s going on.

If exploring these issues seems too overwhelming to do on your own, seek help from a professional who can help you pinpoint where you are stuck.  You don’t necessarily have to dig around endlessly in the past; it’s more about learning to honor and recognize your own feelings, which then helps you address what your own child is feeling (versus always reacting to what he is doing).  Once you’re no longer emotionally triggered by your child – which also means he’ll act out a lot less – the door opens to a whole new kind of relationship.

Any words of encouragement for moms going through this tough time?

When you’re in a difficult phase with your child, it can really wear you down, depleting your energy and spirit.  Acknowledging the truth of what you’re feeling – even if you’re wracked with guilt and shame for feeling it – is a good first step.  Make sure to take some time away from your child to refuel and just focus on you.  Talk to your spouse about how you can support each other through this challenging time, and lean on friends who are good listeners and won’t judge. And just remember, this too shall pass.

Jennifer Waldburger, MSW, is a regular contributor in our extraordinary stable of experts at The Mother Company.  She is co-founder of Sleepy Planet, a company that offers collaborative consultation, education, parenting groups, counseling, and products to parents of children birth to five years. She is co-creator of the book and DVD “The Sleepeasy Solution,” and also maintains a private practice as parenting consultant and educator.  Check out more of Jennifer’s helpful articles:  Tantrums, Testing, & Talking BackWhen You Don’t Like Your ChildNightmares, and In Search of the Holiday Spirit.

The Mother Company is on a mission to Help Parents Raise Good People. We do this with our children’s Emmy-winning television series, Ruby’s Studio, a series of preschool and early educational picture books, free teacher guidesmusic and more, all about social and emotional learning.

Posted in: Expert Advice, Learn, Modern Parenting, Tough Topics