| Family Reflections |

My Unkind Child

It may be hard to feel love toward an unkind child


Children are born, as we know, with a generous dose of personality. Parents help shape and guide their offspring, but they cannot completely change their inborn character. As a result, many parents are “stuck” with a child (or more) who they aren’t naturally fond of.

“My daughter is very demanding. She always wants something from me. Sometimes it’s a particular food, sometimes it’s a toy, sometimes it’s clothing or accessories, sometimes it’s just my attention. It’s gotten to the point that when I know she’s in a room, I avoid entering that room because I don’t want to be ‘attacked’ by her wants. I honestly don’t enjoy being around her but, as her mother, I feel very guilty saying that.”

Personality Clashes

Of course no mother wants to dislike her own child, but when a child isn’t likable, it can and does happen.

“I honestly can’t stand watching my daughter interact with other children. She’s such a snob! When her friends come knocking on our door to invite her out, not only does she refuse to go, she practically slams the door in their faces! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taught her how to decline politely and sensitively, but when her friends ask her if she wants to play, she still says things like, ‘No, I don’t want to!’ and walks off. When other people see her behave rudely to children — including to their own kids — I almost feel like I have to apologize for her. One thing I ‘enjoyed’ about quarantine was that we didn’t get together with anyone. It was a temporary relief for me.”

Here is a parent who values kindness and emotional intelligence, and whose own child demonstrates the exact opposite traits. It’s understandable that this woman cringes when observing her daughter’s behavior.

Parents Are Teachers

When parents see unlikable traits in their children, they shouldn’t just recoil. Rather, they should remember their role as teachers. The naturally grumpy child is not just unpleasant to live with; she’s in dire need of education. Her parents need to teach her the appropriate limits for begging and wanting. Even if she remains dissatisfied, she needs to learn how to restrain her behavior so as not to send others running away when they see her. Education may not transform her into a bubbling fountain of joy, but at least it can push her closer to an acceptable way of functioning and feeling in the world.

As for modifying the permanent “hunger” that drives the annoying behavior, parents can help by naming that particular pain. “I know you want me to listen to you right now and I realize it’s very frustrating that I’m not available to do that.” Simply naming the feeling has the counterintuitive effect of reducing it. Naming a feeling releases it. Although this may not happen at first, the more a parent names feelings, the sooner they will lessen.

In the example of the insensitive child, she needs persistent lessons in appropriate social behavior — if at first she doesn’t get it, there’s no need to give up. Because of her lack of natural sensitivity, she probably needs extra doses of emotional coaching as well. Mom’s consistent naming of her feelings (“You didn’t feel like playing with the girls, honey?”) will help the child become more sensitive to others over time. True sensitivity isn’t acquired by lectures, reprimands, or punishment. It’s helped by being on the receiving end of sensitivity and understanding. This, combined with careful instruction and positive reinforcement, can slowly help an unkind child move toward more thoughtful behavior.

Limits to Change

Of course, even when parents try their hardest to help their children acquire more pleasing personalities, some kids will persist in displaying difficult or irritating traits. Such children will have a better chance at adult happiness if their parents consistently keep modeling kind behavior. Nonetheless, parents are only human. Helpful and conscientious as they may be, they may not enjoy these children as much as their others. (This lesser level of pleasure has nothing to do with treating one’s children preferentially. Parents must strive to treat all of their kids equally well.)

One way parents can help themselves through the guilt and pain of feeling less love to a particular child is to name their own feelings. By naming and accepting their true feelings, they will help soften and release them, making more room for genuine acceptance.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 707)

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