Advice: You love your kids, but must you like them? | #parenting

Parenting is hard enough without feeling like your child is your ultimate nemesis, writes Serena Solomon.

Have you ever wondered if you and your child are two opposing forces randomly paired by the cosmos? If the answer is yes, you are not alone.

Feelings of disliking your child are more common than you think. It doesn’t mean you don’t love your child, or that your relationship is a lemon.

For many parents, this will be a phase to endure, or a time to mend a few dings from their past. But, as with all things parenting, there is a line when normal becomes abnormal, and some parents will need outside help to reconnect with their children.

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“It is a more normal feeling than is talked about,” says Dr Anna Martin, an Auckland-based clinical therapist, specialising in relationships between children and parents. Her first piece of advice for parents is to have compassion for themselves.

“We are humans first and parents second, and human beings have a range of emotions at any point in time and throughout the day,” she says.

She also explores the fluidity of parenting with her clients. Children dip in and out of behaviours – some more likeable, some less likeable – as they grow. It is no surprise that the majority of parents who tell Martin they dislike their children have toddlers or teenagers. Both are phases of critical brain development.

In other words, yes, your child could be in a phase of development where they are not so loveable. But, to quote a favourite parenting mantra, this too shall pass.

The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of decision-making, logic and considering consequences, isn’t fully online until our children are in their 20s. Until then, their behaviour is heavily influenced by their emotions, which they are learning to regulate.

“Teens, and toddlers to a certain degree, go through a process of individuation and separation,” Martin says. “Toddlers gain a sense of self as separate beings from their parents.”

It is part of a push-pull where our kids need a secure attachment to us to feel safe. However, simultaneously, they are detaching from us as they grow.

Parents don’t often come straight out and tell Jenny Hale, a parenting coach at Parenting Place, that they dislike their children, “but when I say it, they agree,” she says.

The reality is that other than children growing out of notoriously tricky stages, it is the parent who needs to lead and possibly change. “Parenting is such an invitation to grow because you get faced with things that you need to face up to,” Hale says.

Children constantly bounce on our inadequacies. For example, if a child is endlessly ignoring a request to stop a dangerous behaviour, such as running off, it could trigger a parent’s long-held feelings of insignificance. Resentment might brew in another parent who had to dial back their career goals to raise a child.

Personality clashes can occur. Hale recommends learning about and appreciating every personality type, which is something Parenting Place’s course Toolbox delves into.

For a recent client of Hale’s, rekindling joy in parenting a difficult child was helped along with an easy task: writing a list of what she liked about all her children, including the child she struggled to like.

“What it helped was [to] make the parent realise the child’s tenacity, leadership, problem-solving and initiative,” Hale says. “It helped her remember the good things about this child, not the fact the child was driving her nutty.”

Then, there are the deeper issues at play, the type that needs outside help. Postnatal depression can disrupt the bond between mother and child that can endure beyond the child’s teenage years.

Mental illness can also impact how we feel towards our children. An author of a recent parenting column in online Slate magazine, described having no motivation to play with his children. Not long after, he was diagnosed with clinical depression.

Parenting can dig up old, unresolved childhood trauma, or a child could be a reminder of an ex-partner. One client of Shelly Evans, a social worker at Family Works in Upper Hutt, experienced a messy and volatile divorce.

“She struggled with the fact that the child was a mini-me of the child’s dad,” Evans says. “The child had taken to speaking to [her] mum the way the dad did as well.”

After six months of attending a parenting group and one-on-one visits with a counsellor, the mother saw beyond the similarities.

“There was a lot of work she needed to do on herself,” Evans says.

If your dislike for your child makes you uncomfortable, or if it endures for more than a few weeks, that could be a signal for help, Martin says, the Auckland-based therapist.

“People will have a different threshold for when they feel it is becoming a problem,” she says.

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