It’s a truism that kids often feel like their parents don’t get them. But sometimes they’re more right than they know.
“I often talk to parents who look at each other and say, ‘Where did we get this one?’ ” says Cynthia Ulrich Tobias, author of You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded) (Waterbrook Press).
For those who can’t relate to their children — don’t recognize themselves in them — parenting can be especially anxiety-ridden.
“It can erode the relationship,” says Tobias.
Often what’s needed is a subtle reinterpretation about the role of a parent, say experts. The goal, after all, is not to shape children in your image, but to guide them to the best version of themselves.
“If they do something you really disagree with, you openly talk about where you draw the lines and why,” says Margret Nickels, director of Erikson Institute’s Center for Children and Families. “But try to give your child wiggle room when they’re trying to express who they are and exploring and growing. The more you let them explore — with guidance — the more they will choose their own healthy way.”
This may mean accepting your child’s choice of violin over hockey or learning to admire his introvert tendencies even as you keep up with your 600 Facebook friends.
“Kids want their parents to respect who they,” says clinical psychologist Paul Donahue, author of Parenting Without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters (St. Martin’s Griffin). “A lot of it has to do with not passing judgment and maintaining empathy and understanding.”
Setting a tone of mutual respect can help you expand your child’s comfort zone.
“You don’t want to force-feed, but you do want to expose your kids to things that are outside their normal experience,” says Donahue. “Maybe you want to go to an art museum and they don’t want to. So you say, ‘We’ll go for an hour and then we’ll go to lunch and do something you want.’ We don’t expect them to love it, but we do expect them to try new things.”
Personal styles can vary widely even between twins, says Tobias, whose two sons are now 21.
“All through fourth grade, Mike would do his homework at the table by himself. Robert was in the living room on his stomach on top of the coffee table with his feet in the air. The bottom line is both boys proved it worked.”
Sending your child the message that you wish they were a different person can have immediate and long-term consequences, says the Erikson Institute’s Nickels.
“When we push them too hard, it can be more about our needs than what they’re needing,” she says. “We have to constantly sort out, ‘Is this so that I feel better about myself, or is this about what my child needs or what’s best for my child?’
“A lot of pushing comes out of a sense of protection and well intentions, but we give kids the message, ‘There’s something about you that’s hard for us to accept.’ ”
Children who feel steered in an uncomfortable direction do one of two things, Nickels says.
“They will either rebel, so you will get a lot of conflict and fighting back and anger. Because the message you’re sending is, ‘I’m disappointed in you and I don’t know what to do with you and something about you is not right.”
Or they’ll internalize a sense of failure.
“Your child will try to adjust to your ideas of who he or she should be and will turn very anxious or depressed about not living up to your standards,” she says. “This is actually the greater risk.”