One of the most difficult obstacles that parents may encounter is accepting the child they have. Specifically, when a child’s physical, temperamental, intellectual, or social attributes fall short of or differ from the parents’ idealized vision of the child they wished for, the disappointment, frustration, anger, or resentment that ensues can influence their relationship with that child. It is very hard to hide the kind of chronic negative emotions that are evoked in daily interaction with a child who does not match parents’ expectations. The emotional communications that parents give to their child may vary from direct hostility to a more insidious under the radar tone of non-acceptance. For example, I have heard parents say that one of their children is wonderful, unlike “this other one.” Others treat the “disappointing” child with a constant tone of contempt.
Since parents often consider their children extensions of themselves, the pain and anguish they may experience in dealing with their child’s real or perceived shortcomings becomes intolerable and someone (other than themselves) needs to take the blame. Spouses may blame each other for the “bad genes” from the others’ family. Parents often blame teachers or the school for the academic or social shortcomings of their children. This common problem can morph into demands from the school for all kinds of services, evaluations, or even legal action to extract what they feel is necessary to make their children “whole.” While some of this kind of aggressive behavior is due to the frustration and desperation parents experience when their child is not making it at school or with peers, another significant factor that drives the unreasonable demands parents may place on their children, teachers, pediatricians, and therapists stems from their inability to tolerate their own anger toward their child. This important variable often goes unnoticed when parents present with a kind of righteous anger at anyone who they feel is not willing to provide their child with what they feel is necessary to “fix” the problem.
The danger of failing to understand the origins of these behaviors is finding yourself in the position of resonating with the anger that parents will knowingly or unknowingly induce in the very people who are trying to help. Emotions beget emotions and if angry parents provoke anger in well meaning professionals who feel unappreciated, they may respond in anger. This usually exacerbates the situation and leads to bad endings, often in the form of damaged or broken relationships.
While the task of addressing this problem is complex, it begins by attending to the underlying and often unstated emotions that drive the overt angry demands. Professionals who adopt the stance of joining with parents in the shared experience of dealing with their child and inviting them to work collaboratively are on the right track. Attending to the state of our relationships with parents is the best way to prevent bad endings and to provide the best kind of service.