Q: I have a toddler who doesn’t sleep well and never naps. She exhausts me with her never-ending need for attention. And since I’m already over tired from having my nights interrupted, I am finding myself sometimes wishing she just wasn’t there, that I can’t cope with her, and that makes me feel that I must be a terrible mother. My own mother adds to that guilt my admonishing me when I complain. Is it wrong to sometimes dislike your child?
Q: My son is extremely challenging. He fights going to sleep, is difficult to get up, and he throws a tantrum whenever I say no to him. His moods shift rapidly and a pleasant time is suddenly spoiled for everyone. He has always been like this and I find myself preferring to spend time with my daughter because she is so much easier to get along with. I feel increasingly guilty that I may not love my children equally. Is this wrong?
Q: I have a full-time job that is exceptionally demanding. My 4 y.o. daughter doesn’t see a lot of me. Sometimes I even have to work on the weekends. Perhaps even more important is that when I’m with her, I find it difficult to enjoy playing her little girl games. I was never into that stuff when I was a child and I’m no better at it as an adult. Although I love her dearly, I feel very guilty that I’m not being a good mother to her and worry that this will be damaging to her. Any thoughts?
I have gathered these quotes together because there are some important common issues here, in particular, temperament and fit. The former refers to a constellation of behaviors and moods that a child appears to be born with and tends to be relatively enduring over time. These include such factors as activity level, regularity (sleeping, eating), responding to new situations by approaching or withdrawing, adaptability to change in routine, sensory sensitivity (sound, light, tactile), general mood, intensity of response, distractibility, and persistence (attention span). Children are born with measurable differences in these factors and certain combinations result in what has been identified in extensive research on temperament as the easy child, the slow-to-warm-up child, the difficult child, the highly active child and the persistent child. It is important to note that this is what infants bring to the parent-child relationship and it significantly impacts on that relationship. Young children are not simply shaped by parents in a unidirectional relationship.
This is where the second component, fit, enters in. The quality of a particular parent-child relationship is significantly influenced by the fit of the two personalities. An irregular child with an orderly, busy parent creates a potential for greater conflict. A hyperactive child with a low-key parent is another (common) bad fit. This creates additional challenges to the already challenging task of parenting. Being aware of this constitutional component that influences parent-child relationships is important in reducing parents’ sense of total responsibility for the quality of the relationships with their children.
In the above examples, I ultimately concluded that the first child was probably hyperactive and exceptionally draining on the mother. Her negative emotions were understandable and among the various recommendations was to increase the child’s time in a larger day care setting because the child thrived in a more stimulating, busy environment. This enabled the mother to make their reduced time together more satisfying.
In the second case, it became clear that this was one of those “difficult” or challenging(!) children and the parents needed professional assistance in developing strategies to cope with the child’s behaviors. The mother’s feelings were quite appropriate under the circumstances. The potential for more serious problems is being reduced by early intervention with the family.
The third case is more typically something I run into with fathers, but becoming more common in women who have strong achievement needs and can now express them. This type of parent often finds it hard to relate in the playful, silly, on-the-floor ways of very young children. But, as the child becomes older and more able to participate in adult-like activities, that parent is often able to develop an increasingly close relationship with the child. This parent may just need to be patient, perhaps learn to loosen up a bit, and, hopefully, have a spouse who enjoys very young children.
The answer to all these mothers is that it is quite normal to have a range of positive and negative feelings about your children, that the child’s temperament is a key contributing factor to those variations, and that you can develop strategies to reduce the tensions so that both parent and child can come through the process with their self-esteem intact as well as their relationships.