How to cope if you and your child are polar opposites

Some parents can see a lot of themselves in their child and feel instinctively attuned with their little one. For other parents, it is as if their child is from an entirely different universe! Psychologist Dr Victoria Samuel gives her tips for getting close and reconnecting

If you and child rarely see eye-to-eye follow our six top tips for trying to improve matters

1. Be honest with yourself

There is often truth in the adage that traits we find hard to accept in others are those we dislike in ourselves. So it may be worth asking yourself if whatever it is about your child that leads you to bemoan “we’re just soo different” is really totally alien to you. You may be surprised. A parent frustrated with their ‘controlling’ child, who describes themselves as ‘laid back’, may in fact have a need for control in a different or perhaps more subtle way.

2. Don’t genderise

A gulf between parents and their children may occur more often with an opposite sex child - so Dad may feel poles apart from his daughter and Mum drastically different from her son. In such cases, there can be a disconcerting sense of not quite “getting” their child and a sense of frustration with a lack of shared interests based on their child’s gender.

If this sounds familiar it may be important to check that you are not assuming a gap between you and your child based on how society expects us to view girls and boys. Children’s interests are hugely influenced by what society conditions them to like based on their gender. There is not necessarily a pre-programmed dislike of rough and tumble for girls or an in-built aversion to dolls for boys!

Throw gender roles aside and you may be surprised at what girls and boys enjoy that smacks in the face of what society expects. Boys can become passionate about sewing; girls can love cars and trains. Once you’ve stop genderising you may open up a whole range of potential fun shared activities that help you reconnect with your little boy or girl.

3. Banish labels

It is certainly the case that some children really do seem to be from a different planet from their parents; we’ve all know of a little Miss Messy daughter of Mummy Super-Tidy! If you’re aware of an aspect of your child that is totally at odds with what you’re like, be careful not to over focus on it.

It’s amazing how securely labels stick and how self-fulfilling they can be; a “grumpy” toddler will quickly take on a sulky demeanour if he is regularly referred to as such and when family and friends stop noticing his cheery side the label gradually becomes increasingly hard for him to shake off.

Remember that once we’ve made a judgment about someone’s personality we tend to filter out of awareness any characteristics that are inconsistent with our views. Side-step this selective attention by making a special effort to look out for alternative, positive traits, no matter how subtle.

Reinforce the type of behaviour you want to see more of by commenting approvingly using descriptive praise; clearly label the specific behaviour and the positive trait it reveals. “You did a great job of sorting out the recycling, that was very organised of you”.

Also try to look for practical opportunities to help your child step out of their fixed role: ask a ‘clumsy’ child to help you with something fiddly; let your ‘unreliable’ little one be responsible for feeding the cat.

4. Get acting

Ok, so you’ve reflected and avoided labelling but you still really can’t summon up the energy to share your little one’s passionate enthusiasm for creepy crawlies, fancy dress or battle re-creation.

There’s no easy answer but parents can surprise themselves by trying out things they think they will loathe. Lose your inhibitions and, just for five minutes, try to join in with the activity which is your little one’s love and your idea of torture; five minutes, no more! Bear in mind that frequent brief positive interactions are more beneficial than infrequent, half-hearted longer spells.

By setting yourself small goals (five minutes remember) you will be surprised at how much more do-able your dreaded play session becomes. Also, it’s often the case that your child’s delight in your sharing in their source of fun is so rewarding that you find you last longer than you imagine!

5. Reconnect through simple, close interactions

If you are finding it difficult to see eye-to-eye, you and your child will benefit from setting aside a special time to spend together each day during which you focus on re-connecting through simple activities and interactions which encourage feelings of closeness, connection and laughter.

• Play involving touch, texture or sensory experiences is excellent for connecting and getting close. Try nail painting, face-painting and playing at hairdressers. Don’t forget to swap roles so you are styled and painted by your model!
• Have fun with food; put a doughnut or pretzel on your finger. See how many bites your little one can take before breaking the circle.
• Play the sock game: take it turns to try and get each others socks off whilst the other person tries to keep them on.
• A simple game of Simon Says is great for encouraging joint attention and mutual responsiveness.
• Build trust and get close by having your child close their eyes, while you gentle touch their face, arms and hands with a feather or paint brush, then swap roles.

6. Get support

If you’ve tried the suggestions above and remain concerned about a real lack of connection with your child, it’s important that you seek professional help and support.

A lack of attachment can significantly hold back your child from developing as a confident secure individual and can make your role as parent a lonely, overwhelming and unsatisfying one. There are a number of reasons why the bond between you and your child may be a bit shaky but you shouldn’t struggle on alone.

Admitting your concerns will be the hardest but most important first step. Talk to a partner or close friend or and then arrange to meet with your Health Visitor or GP.

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The Parent Support Service provides practical, professional guidance for common parenting concerns.

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