When your kid is hard to like
Parents rarely admit it, but sometimes our kids are hard to like. If you’ve thought this before, know you’re not alone.
As much as we love our children, they don’t always act in ways that match our expectations. In this episode, hosts Amanda Morin and Bob Cunningham talk about how having trouble connecting with your child is a perfectly normal part of parenting.
Listen in. Then hear from an expert on what to do when you and your child don’t “get” each other.
Amanda: [00:00:04] Hi. I'm Amanda Morin, a writer, an in-house expert for Understood.org, and a parent to kids who learn differently.
Bob: [00:00:10] And I'm Bob Cunningham. I'm a career educator and a parent. And I'm the executive director for learning development at Understood.
Amanda: [00:00:17] And we are "In It."
Bob: [00:00:19] "In It" is a podcast from Understood. On this show, we talk to parents, caregivers, and sometimes kids. We offer support and advice for families whose kids are struggling with reading, math, focus, and other learning and thinking differences.
Amanda: [00:00:32] Today, we're talking about connecting with our kids, which is not as easy as it sounds.
Bob: [00:00:36] And about how sometimes being the parent our kid needs us to be means letting go of everything we thought we knew about being a good parent.
Amanda: [00:00:49] I'm wondering if you can tell us a little bit about your daughter and what she's like.
Laura: [00:00:54] Well, she's 11 years old. She is very, very creative, very opinionated. And she's a wonderful person in many, many ways. And she's also incredibly difficult to parent in many, many ways.
Amanda: [00:01:15] That's Laura. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and she's mom to two kids: a 13-year-old son, who she says she's always kind of instinctively understood, and also an 11-year-old daughter, who she's really had to struggle to understand and connect with.
Bob: [00:01:28] Laura's daughter has ADHD and autism. And something about Laura's own wiring — her personality and ideas about parenting — have often made her feel like a failure when it came to raising her daughter. She's also felt angry and frustrated and guilty.
Amanda: [00:01:42] And these feelings are so common, but they're hard to talk about. That's what we want to explore today. And we're so grateful that Laura was willing to speak so candidly and really so thoughtfully about her experiences.
Bob: [00:02:01] So let's start from the beginning. Laura says her relationship with her daughter hasn't always been challenging. It got off to a pretty smooth start.
Laura: [00:02:08] She was mostly a very — I would even say an easy baby. She was very well attached. She liked to be held more than anything. She was a little hard to leave with other people. And the other, the only other difficulty we really had was that she didn't want to sleep.
Amanda: [00:02:26] Oh, my gosh.
Laura: [00:02:28] But then as she became a toddler, she was a very, very active toddler. And she was fearless as a toddler. And so things sort of started to spiral pretty quickly.
Amanda: [00:02:41] What did that spiral look like?
Laura: [00:02:44] Just feeling like things were out of control. I mean, literally, I remember in a parking lot once when she was about 2, I was getting her older brother out of his car seat and she just ran off into traffic and a car almost hit her. And I sort of just barely grabbed her in time.
Amanda: [00:03:06] Laura says she read every book she could find on behavior and discipline to find out how to manage what looked to her like "naughty" behavior. She tried time-outs. She tried positive reinforcement. She also admits she did a fair amount of yelling back then out of frustration and exhaustion, because none of the advice out there seemed to be working for her kid.
Laura: [00:03:27] Well, my daughter responds with a lot of anger and always has. That makes it harder to respond in a positive manner. You know, if a child is crying, it's easy to hug a child. But if a child is furious at you or even attacking you, then it's quite difficult to maintain that sympathy and empathy for where they are.
Bob: [00:03:55] Laura worried about the impact this volatile relationship was having on her whole family. But she also worried about how other people might see it.
Laura: [00:04:03] Especially given that she was so young and I was a pretty new parent, I think I've felt the most stigma from other parents at that point. And even not necessarily what other parents actually said to me. It was just my perception of what other people must be thinking when they saw me in public with my kids. I just felt like I didn't know what I was doing and it was going to be totally obvious to everybody else that I didn't know what I was doing.
Amanda: [00:04:44] Laura knew her parenting approach wasn't working, so she started looking to new sources for advice and support. For one thing, her whole family started therapy.
Bob: [00:04:52] And that led to some really big changes, starting with how she and her husband interpret their daughter's behavior.
Laura: [00:04:58] You know, especially when we were first starting out parenting her, you couldn't help but sort of devolve to the most negative outlook possible. You know, some words that might have come up would have been "headstrong" or "stubborn" or even "oppositional." And in time and with greater education, we came to realize that a lot of what we were perceiving as being oppositional behavior was really us not understanding what she needed and where she was right then.
Amanda: [00:05:35] Before you got to this place, were there messages in society that really made it hard for you to get to this place?
Laura: [00:05:45] Oh, very much so. Yeah. The whole idea of parental authority. What's the limit of it being a beneficial thing? I've had children that really, really pushed my traditional beliefs on that whole concept.
Amanda: [00:06:06] So you had to relinquish some of that parental authority to make this work. What have you done to let go of some of that parental authority? What does it look like in your house?
Laura: [00:06:18] Well, one thing it looks like is allowing my daughter to have a lot more individual control over things like when she's going to take a shower or bathe, and how often — even when she's going to wear her glasses, which, that was a big point of conflict for years because she's supposed to wear glasses. But she, her perception is that she doesn't necessarily need them all the time. And about a year ago, I just sort of threw in the towel and said, you know what? You are old enough to understand why you're supposed to be wearing your glasses and what's at stake if you don't wear your glasses. And it's not my problem anymore. And so she went for months without wearing them at all, and then started to realize that she needed glasses if she was going to be, you know, if she wasn't gonna be right up next to what the teacher was doing, she kind of needed to be able to see better. And so she would start to wear them at school. And she is actually pretty consistent about doing it. I'm not sure how clean she's keeping them. But like I said, at this point, I don't consider that my problem.
Amanda: [00:07:40] I think people underestimate, you know — when you're raising kids who are not neurotypical — I think people underestimate how much work goes into like having just a daily relationship with them.
Laura: [00:07:52] Yes. Yes. The mental and emotional energy that goes into it, you know, it can be exhausting. And you end up so physically tired and, you're like, but what have I been doing? I've just been trying to make things work.
Amanda: [00:08:10] Bob, that part of my conversation with Laura was so refreshing because I think it's just so common for parents to feel like, I am just holding on. I'm just trying to make it through today.
Bob: [00:08:22] Yeah, I agree. I think that's part of parenting. Doesn't matter who you are, who your kids are. I feel like that happens to all of us. And if, especially if this is your first child, I think you might not know that. But it's important. It's really important for us to remind ourselves and each other of that.
Amanda: [00:08:41] I will remind you if you remind me.
Bob: [00:08:42] Yes.
Amanda: [00:08:44] Laura and I talked about something else she struggled with — something so taboo, but that we know is not unique to her.
Amanda: [00:08:51] Have you ever had that moment where you actually think, I really am not sure I like this child?
Laura: [00:08:58] I have had that feeling. And I, at this point, I think of it as a feeling I've had in the past more than that I actively feel recently. But I certainly have gone through difficult periods as a parent when, you know, you just keep on going because you don't have much choice in the matter. I really think that it's kind of, it's a cliché to say, well, you don't pick your family. But really, you don't. And I think when we become parents, we have an idea that whatever issues we had with our own birth families that, you know, we're going to do it better. We're going to — it's not going to be like that for us. We're starting over fresh. But then the reality is that you get the family you get, and you can do your very best and still have big problems.
Laura: [00:10:02] I'm personally not a religious person, but I feel like I'm a moral person. And it's like that being a parent has really highlighted the morality of family life to me, and how to me it's a moral question of trying to do your best and making the best out of the situation that you have. And I guess by "best" I mean trying to be as connected and do the right thing with each other as much as you can. That is how I show my love for the people in my life. It doesn't really come down to like or dislike in the end.
Amanda: [00:11:05] Laura has really put some thought into this and knows what it looks like to not connect with her child. But struggling to connect with your kid can take so many different forms. Aaron Gouveia has written about this kind of struggle in a new book called "Raising Boys to Be Good Men." Aaron is a diehard sports fan and he thought his sons would be, too. We talked about how his sons have changed his idea of what it means to connect with his kids.
Aaron: [00:11:30] You know, before I had kids, I thought all the time about how I'd, you know, not only pass down that fandom, but also, you know, instill a love of sports in them, because I played three sports a year. I played basketball, baseball, soccer, you name it. You know, I wanted to play it. So, you know, I have three boys now. And, you know, I obviously push for them to be involved in sports, with my oldest, who's almost 12 now. And it quite frankly, just it never, never materialized like I thought it would. And I had a really hard time with that at first. You know, one of the times where I really knew that I had to adjust my thinking was when he was offered through school, some, you know, a variety of activities to choose from. And, you know, among those activities were the traditional sports, like football and things like that. But also Rainbow Loom. Back when that was a thing, you know, the kids making the multicolored bracelets. And, you know, he came to me and said, "Dad, you know, I'm going to play football." And I said, "You're going to play football? In what universe do you play football?" I said, "Look at all this other stuff." And he said, "Well, you know, I just want you to be happy. I know football is important to you." And, you know, I really felt bad at that point. I did. And I said, "Buddy, you know, I'm sorry if I put pressure on you to do that." I said, "You know, you love Rainbow Loom. You love making these bracelets. You should do that if you're happy." And he ended up doing that. And it's just it was a reminder that, you know, you get the kids you get and you need to celebrate them and be happy with them, even if they don't share what you like. And my kids have certainly taught me that.
Amanda: [00:13:22] So in terms of connection, in terms of your relationship with your daughter, what would a breakthrough in connection look like?
Laura: [00:13:33] Hmm. So I'm not sure some big moment is the way that our relationship has worked. It's more like it was investment, investment, investment, and then suddenly just recently we've been able to have better talks than we ever did before — and talks about how she sees the world, how she sees herself, how she sees other people. And it's just, it's just little things. It's not like we've had one big talk or anything. But I do feel like we're getting to a place where we could have that mother/daughter heart-to-heart that for a long time I never thought that we would get to be close to that. So that, it feels really good to be at least glimpsing that.
Bob: [00:14:25] Looking back, Laura has some regrets about how she parented in those early years.
Laura: [00:14:29] Even though I really needed to emphasize connection with her, I think I made a lot of mistakes. You know, if I had it to do over again, knowing what I know now, I would have parented very differently at that time. But I just didn't have the experience to know what I needed to be doing.
Amanda: [00:14:49] You know, I totally hear the regret there, but I also hear some self-compassion and self-reflection. And that's so important because the truth is, as parents, we can't know what we don't know. And all we can do is try our best even when we think our best isn't good enough. And that's such a good reminder that parenting is a long game.
Bob: [00:15:07] Yeah, kids don't actually remember what we think they're going to do as adults. As parents, like, we hang on to the time when it didn't go well or when I did this and I should have done that or oh, my gosh, did I just emotionally scar my child for life and that sort of stuff. And years later, like, we still remember that. The good news is that kids really don't. They might remember this or that, but it's never those things that we were so concerned that was actually gonna have a bad impact on them.
Amanda: [00:15:39] So what they really end up hating you for is when you told them they had to get their hair cut the day before class pictures — instead of when you screamed at them in front of their friends.
Bob: [00:15:50] Yeah. My daughter, she's not the most organized person in the world. And I can distinctly remember getting to a hotel and freaking out on her because the thing that she needed, she just didn't remember to bring. And when I look back on that trip, like that's what I remember the most, the feeling of, gosh, I never should have exploded that way. And when she remembers that trip, she remembers me making her leave the pool 10 minutes before she was ready.
Amanda: [00:16:23] That's a relief to know. Hopefully my children will follow your children's example.
Amanda: [00:16:32] You've been listening to "In It," a podcast from Understood. Our website is Understood.org, where you can find all sorts of free resources for people raising kids who learn and think differently.
Bob: [00:16:41] We'd like to hear what you think of our show. "In It" is for you. And we want to make sure that you're getting what you need. Go to U.org/podcast to share your thoughts and also to find resources. That's the letter "U" as in Understood dot O R G slash podcast.
Amanda: [00:16:58] You can subscribe to "In It" on Apple Podcasts, follow us on Spotify, or keep up with us however you listen to podcasts. And while you're there, please take a moment to rate and review us. It's a great way to let other people know about "In It." And if you like what you heard today, share it with your moms' group, share it at the PTA meeting, or share it with anyone else you think should hear it.
Bob: [00:17:18] Between episodes you can find Understood on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and YouTube. Or you can visit our website: U, that's the letter "U," dot O R G. Our show is produced by Julie Subrin and Sara Ivry. Mike Errico wrote our theme music and Laura Kusnyer is our executive director of editorial content.
Amanda: [00:17:37] Thanks for listening, everyone, and thanks for always being in it with us.
Bob: [00:17:46] "In It" is a production of Understood.
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is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Gretchen Vierstra, MA
is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.