Parenting a child who is very different from you can feel beyond challenging. But is it a good use of your energy to try to get your child to be someone different than who they are? Dr. Nanika Coor offers tips for parenting the child you have rather than the child you'd hoped to have.
When you find out that you'll be parenting a new child, all sorts of thoughts begin to float around in your head. You fantasize about a child you’ll have a lot in common with. A child you can share the things in life that have brought you joy. You look forward to attending music recitals, sporting events and proudly applauding your child in the school play, or spending lazy afternoons making art together. Maybe you're a parent with strong political views and you can't wait to share your worldview and beliefs with the children you bring into your life.
There are just so many plans! The clothes you’ll dress your child in, the music you’ll play for them, the dishes you loved as a child that you can’t wait to make for them. The songs you will sing to them, the cities you will show them. The dreams are endless! Yep—it’s all fun and games until you meet your child in real life and you find out they have dreams of their own!
Intellectually, you know that your child will be their own individual person as they grow and develop. In practice, you just can’t know ahead of time what your chemistry will be with this particular child.
You don't know what it's going to feel like when your child absolutely hates the instrument you played dutifully every day after school. You don't know how much you're going to take it personally when your child decides they want nothing to do with a subject you love and instead gravitate towards one you struggle with. Maybe you feel introverted, quiet, and studious—and your child is the extroverted sports-oriented class clown!
So what's a parent to do? How do you learn to go with who your child is when you feel so much internal resistance, when your child experiences the world in such a different way than you do?
The answer is to parent the child you actually have, rather than the child you might have wished to have had. Sounds easier said than done? Here are some tips to get you started.
Commit to being responsive to who your child is
Whether your child is a newborn, in elementary school, or a freshman in college, you're probably not going to make it through a full day of being with them without a few moments of emotional mismatch. You'll have difficulty soothing them, understanding their needs, or liking how they act during an interaction. You'll want one thing to happen and they'll want a totally different thing!
These kinds of misalignments can make for bitter conflicts, but they don’t have to. Slow down, take a breath, and radically accept that, in this moment, your needs are at odds with your child’s needs. That in and of itself need not be a problem if you can remind yourself that you can’t control who your child is or how they think or feel. Prioritize safety needs and try to let go of the rest in these moments.
Focus on what is in your control: your own thoughts and behaviors. Your child is who they are. Your child is experiencing whatever they are experiencing right now. No amount of your frustration, disappointment, anger, and wishing it wasn’t so will change the cards you’ve been dealt. That fruitless frustration will cause you inner turmoil, color your interactions with your child, and may unintentionally send your child the message that they aren’t "good enough" for you, which causes your child inner distress in the moment and over time.
Remind yourself that you can’t control who your child is or how they think or feel.
Understand, accept, and find things to enjoy about your child’s current stage of development
Western individualistic and competitive culture pressures parents almost from the start to push their child to be "advanced" in some way. It’s so hard to enjoy where your child is in their development without feeling pulled to push them quickly into a future stage of development.
For example, as soon as a baby’s legs are able to bear the tiniest bit of weight, parents feel compelled to start making them “walk” up or down stairs before they’re able to do this on their own. This gives babies a false sense of physical security that can potentially be unsafe given their actual motor skills, and parents are less present, unable to appreciate the amazing things their child is already doing.
Don't focus too much on your future child and some unknown development—there are so many ways that your child is already capable and mastered difficult skills! Let them see your acceptance and excitement for who they already are.
It’s also important to learn about your child’s current stage of development so that you can have realistic expectations of their capabilities. A child under 7 years of age is necessarily going to have great difficulty managing big emotions. Expecting a 3-year-old to handle their disappointment as gracefully as a 10-year-old might is a recipe for disappointment all around!
Lean in to adapting, accommodating, and adjusting to your child
If your child had a terrible allergy to a particular food, or they were born with a particular disorder or had a serious injury, you would do what was necessary to adjust to that reality. You would avoid those foods or get whatever treatment your child needed or make accommodations for your injured child while they recovered.
Lean in to making similar accommodations for your child's emotional needs and personality. Parents often try to make their child be a certain way instead of making adjustments around their child's temperament, personality, or even a psychological diagnosis. You can try to urge your child to be more outgoing, or less boisterous, or more academically inclined and interested in extracurricular activities, or more stereotypically masculine or feminine—but at the end of the day, your child is going to be who they are, and your relationship will be a lot smoother if you can adapt.
Reflect on how authentic you were allowed to be in childhood
When you were young, were you able to show what you were really feeling? Could you be honest about your anger toward your parents? Could you show sadness, disappointment, or dissent? Could you choose a sport that you liked even if it was different from what your parents wanted you to take part in? Could you refuse an activity if your parents wanted you to do it? If you were a social child whose parents were very introverted, did they support your social pursuits or shut them down? Did your parents seek to understand your interests as a teen or did they put them down or try to dissuade you from them?
Your experience as a child will impact your own comfort or discomfort with letting your child be who they naturally are. If your parents had a difficult time accepting your true self, such that you had to show a certain “face” to them, while being your true self in secret, you might have a lot of difficulties accepting your authenticity as well. This might make it that much harder for you to let go of trying to change your child’s true nature. Remind yourself of what it might have been like for you to have been accepted exactly as you were, even when it wasn’t easy, and even when you were having a really hard time. Remind yourself that you have the power to give your child the kind of acceptance that you always deserved.
Identify the top three things about your child that you find yourself resisting the most. Is it their interests? Their personal style? Their temperament or personality? A diagnosis you’re having trouble accepting?
Here's a challenge for the next 30 to 90 days: when you feel that familiar resistance to who your child is arising inside of you, consider radically accepting how your child is showing up in that moment. Breath through it. Let it be. Try to swim with the current of who your child is rather than against it. Notice anything about your connection with them that changes. Let me know how it goes!
Accepting who your child truly is doesn’t mean not setting limits or allowing your child to be unsafe. It just means having realistic expectations for your unique child and not expecting them to be someone they are not. If your child is high-energy and prefers a lot of autonomy, you’re not setting either of you up for success by putting them in situations where there is a lot of external control and pressure to be quiet and still.
Try to swim with the current of who your child is rather than against it.
Coming to terms with who your child authentically is may mean grieving the kind of life you thought you’d have with your child that you—and they—will not get to experience. You might have to give up certain dreams for your child’s future that they just don’t have for themselves. You may never get to share certain interests or ideals with your child, and that’s not easy. Hold space for your emotional pain around that—it’s completely valid! And at the same time, day after day and moment by moment, recommit to accepting the person your child is showing you that they are. A child whose parent accepts them for exactly who they are, simply because they exist, is a child with a greater capacity for self-acceptance and therefore a greater capacity to accept others, including the good, bad, and ugly parts of you, too.