In my clinical work people often tell me that they ‘love’ their children, but they find it hard to ‘like’ them.
While I’m not always entirely persuaded about the ‘love’ (since their behaviour often indicates deep resentment and dislike), I understand that it would be socially unacceptable to say otherwise.
Unfortunately, these parents have unintentionally ‘trained’ their children to be little ‘monsters’ and sadly the children often know deep down that they are disliked and resented. Of course, none of this does anyone any good.
Fortunately, it is never too late to change this interaction for the better, but it does require some re-thinking and considerable self-discipline from the parents to change their behaviour. Luckily, as soon as the parents change, the children will quickly follow.
So why does this problem arise in the first place?
One of the most common reasons this occurs is due to an excessively ‘libertarian’ approach to parenting that has dominated Western society for about the past 30 years.
These ‘libertarian’ parents provide little structure or consistent rules for their children to follow. There are usually no negative consequences for poor behaviour, or if there are, they are inconsistently applied.
Libertarian parents often over-praise their children for barely lifting a finger and behave like servants to their children – driving them around, picking up after them, doing their washing, cooking and cleaning – trying to win their children’s approval and be their best friends.
Rewarding children (by continuing in ‘servitude’ and expecting no reciprocity or reasonable contribution) teaches children they need do nothing to earn their parents’ approval. In response, the children become emotionally withholding, unmotivated to learn, sulky, unfriendly, entitled and often unskilled. More concerning, over time, these children can easily become highly-aggressive and even violent towards their parents.
Very significantly, despite their ‘entitled’ presentation, the children raised in this ‘libertarian’ approach often fail miserably in the ‘real’ world. This is because, doing well in the outside world primarily depends upon having the motivation to learn skills, including the skill of coming forward to talk and be friendly and enthusiastic in order to establish meaningful relationships – not withholding and sulking. Without these skills these children become confused and have many negative experiences in the world, often leaving them demoralised and ‘acting out’.
I’ve noticed in my work, that the cycle that keeps this behaviour cycle going is that libertarian parents teach themselves (by chasing) that they ‘need’ their children’s approval, and they feel ‘guilty’ and ‘bad’ when that approval is withheld – like they’re not being good parents. To alleviate their ‘guilt’ they keep on chasing over and over and they ‘gratefully’ consume even the smallest morsel of approval, frugally dealt-out by the children who have (by now) thoroughly ‘learnt’ how to keep their parents on the back foot.
But, despite behaving like doormats most of the time, ‘libertarian’ parents on occasion, become furious at how much running around they are doing for no appreciation or reciprocity from their children – and they often become poisonously resentful, passively aggressive or unpredictably angry or vengeful. Note that both ‘doormat’ and ‘angry’ behaviour keeps the cycle going (because parents feel ‘guilty’ after angry outbursts making them twice as likely to chase again).
On the other hand, parents who are more ‘authoritative’ are more likely to build positive and reciprocal relationships with their children.
These ‘authoritative’ parents tend to have transparent and consistent rules that are well thought out and clearly in the long-term interests of the children – rather than ‘guilt-driven’. For example, they rarely allow sugar because it is not in the long-term interests of the child as it will rot their teeth or give them diabetes.
There are clear positive and negative consequences for children either doing well or breaching.
Negative consequences (like time-out or taking away something valued) are consistently applied BUT there is no yelling, drama or meanness involved whatsoever – the consequence is simply ‘applied’ and the children learn.
This approach equips children with important skills like taking responsibility, or making them realise that conflict does not have to result in escalation, or understanding that they need to come forward to learn and that they must contribute to reasonable standards. It also teaches them that their behaviour very definitely influences outcomes – which gives them a sense of agency in the wider world.
In this environment, children learn quickly and respond well, feeling safe and secure within this clear structure.
As a result, the relationships between parents and their children tend to be attached (but not over-involved), loving, positive, affectionate, self-contained (independent and autonomous), yet quite strict.
These parents are clearly ‘in-charge’ and ‘unified’ – issues are sorted out and agreed upon away from the children.
While this parenting style allows some flexibility in rules (depending on context), nearly always the rules apply.
Children then know exactly how to behave to receive parental love and approval (which is very important in motivating them to come forward to contribute), and they stop whining and testing parents out at every opportunity. These children come to love and highly respect their parents who always lead strongly by example, and these parents are able to both ‘like’ and ‘love’ their children.