When parents call me up for support, they don’t say “I’m having problems with my parenting.” What they usually say is “I’m having problems with my child.” Even when they have several children, one particular child is usually identified as the problem. And when I ask about the other children in the family, the answer tends to be that the other children are really different from their brother/sister, they are co-operative and easy and do what they are told, they are ‘no problem’.
Parents in this situation often have very difficult feelings towards their ‘problem’ child. The fact that they feel effective in parenting their other children can confirm the idea that it is the problem child that is ‘causing’ the problems.
As parents, we tend to expect that we will (or should) feel the same about all our children. But, just like with every other individual in our lives, in reality we have a different relationship with each of our children. And sometimes we can can find it harder to get on with one child than another. Of course, with that comes a huge helping of guilt…
When I unpick with parents why/how the ‘easier’ child is easy, it often comes down to goodness of fit. It’s not always that the easier child has an easier temperament, but that the easier child’s temperament fits better with the parents’ parenting style. As a result, the parenting strategies they use have generally positive results.
“goodness-of-fit results when the child’s capacities, motivations and temperament are adequate to master the demands, expectations and opportunities of the environment” (Chess and Thomas 1984)
When it works like that, parenting can feel very simple: “I do this, my child does that, the result is positive and we both learn to do the same things again.” A virtuous circle.
In general though, things are less straightforward. Often the things we do first don’t work well (“I do this, my child does not do that.”) and we have to adapt and adjust our behaviour according to our child’s needs and responses. We learn, for example, that this particular child does not cope well with surprises but thrives on rigid routines and certainty. And we adapt.
But sometimes a child stretches us beyond where we can comfortably go. What if having a spontaneous, unstructured approach to my life is something I value, something that matters to me, something I esteem in myself? When doing this is important to me and symbolises something about who I am and what I believe in – then every time I do this and one of my children does not do that it can feel very hurtful, a criticism of who I am and what I hold dear. It’s easy to experience that child’s behaviour as deliberately hurtful or mean, as a rejection of love, or a result of something ‘wrong’ with the child that needs to be changed. And so we don’t adapt, we dig in. And battle commences.
“She was born knowing how to push my buttons,” as one parent put it.
More often than not, the ‘problem’ child in the family is the child who requires us to step outside our own values and emotions and abandon our personal comfort zone in order to try and fit our parenting to them. For, in the end, (short of drugs or surgery) there is nothing anyone can give you – no remote control, no magic wand, spell or potion – that can change a child. The only thing any of us can control or change is ourselves.
But when we do things differently, sometimes we get different results.
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©Anita Cleare 2015