When Kids and Parents Don’t Click

“My son/daughter has been difficult from birth!” “Why can’t he just listen?” “I have to tell her ten times before she does what I ask!” “My oldest is just like me and we get along. I don’t know who my youngest is-I just don’t understand him/her!”

                The chemistry or “click” between each child and each parent is determined by a complex set of factors, including genetic make-up, temperament, gender, physical health, and the degree to which each fulfills the expectations of the other. When children and parents are operating as a maturational team, there is a reciprocal exchange of more positive than negative feelings. Simply put, parents and kids like each other because they feel they are like each other. This makes the job of parents-to help develop in the child insulation or a protective barrier as a buttress against the outside world-easier. However, when any one of the above variables results in parents and kids feeling dissimilar-not alike-there can develop a feeling of discomfort, misunderstanding, or even dislike in the dyad. In short, when parents and kids don’t “click,” life becomes more difficult. Some parents are not “good” parents for some kids and some kids are not “good” kids for some parents. While this may be mitigated when the other parent can make up for the lack of match, it becomes a significant dilemma if the parent (still most often the mother) that spends the majority of time with a child feels no click with that child.

                There are many examples of this lack of “click”. Kids and parents may have different temperaments. This is often reflected in the degree of contact an individual desires. If a child has a greater need for contact than a parent does, then the child may create situations-even negative ones-to create the desired contact. The child may become clingy or develop separation anxiety, requiring an already reluctant parent to spend more time together. A child’s aggressivity or impulsivity may frighten and “turn off” a parent. This occurs frequently in mixed gender dyads where the child is male and the mother just doesn’t “get” the child. Passive children frustrate type A parents who are stymied by the difference between their own curiosity and capacity for initiative in contrast to their child’s lack of interest in the world and need for prodding in order to do schoolwork, get a job, etc. Similarly, when children do not fulfill parents’ expressed or unexpressed wishes for the kind of child they wanted (i.e. someone like themselves), the resulting disappointment can feel devastating. Disappointment in children for any reason may lead to emotional communications from parents that are critical and destructive to children’s development and the parent-child chemistry.  Kids, too, can either choose to move closer to/identify with or reject parents based upon a felt experience of being like or unlike one another.

                Talk psychotherapy can help in repairing ruptures in the parent-child relationship when chemistry is missing. Helping parents and children to become a functioning team requires that each learn to tolerate their differences and accept each other. Difficulties arise when the feelings of disappointment, frustration, or anger are not expressed in words. Nevertheless, kids’ felt experience of these emotions from their parents and vice versa produce powerful waves that influence the lives of both. When these feelings-especially the negative (“taboo”) ones-can be put into words, the intensity of the unverbalized but felt negative emotions can be diminished and a meaningful dialogue can be sustained.

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