How to bridge that gap with your children
Instead of getting annoyed because your child is nothing like you, help them be themselves, writes Heidi Stevens
Imagine the literary masterpieces the world would never know if children grew up seeing eye-to-eye with their parents (Romeo who?). It's a truism as old as time that kids will spend many of their years feeling 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). "These are the kids that drive us crazy because we're living proof that our way works - why would they want to do it any other way [than ours]?"
It's impossible to quantify how much parent-to-child headbutting is normal and healthy; some, certainly. But for those who can't relate to their children - don't recognise themselves in them, aren't sure how to talk to them, and find their interests and habits confounding - parenting can be especially anxiety-ridden.
"It can erode the relationship," says Tobias. "You really want to keep the relationship between you and your child strong so you can preserve it and enjoy it, and for discipline and motivation to be effective."
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 Centre 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 a sport or learning to admire his introvert tendencies, even as you keep up with your 600-plus Facebook friends.
"Kids want their parents to respect who they are and to be accepting," says clinical psychologist Paul Donahue, author of Parenting Without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters. "A lot of it has to do with not passing judgment and maintaining empathy and understanding."
It may help to talk about some of the more glaring differences out loud. "I have parents come to me and say, 'My son or daughter is really lazy,'" says Donahue. "It's really important to acknowledge without moralising that you're just different. 'I know you want to have a pyjama day and we want to have a bike-riding day. How about we reach some common ground: today we'll hang out in our PJs for a chunk of the morning and tomorrow we'll do it our way and go bike riding.'"
This can reinforce some larger real-world lessons as well. "Saying, 'You know, we're different that way' shows that we are all different, but we can work together because people's needs are all legitimate," says Nickels.
Setting a tone of mutual respect can actually 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," Donahue continues. "And I'd be careful about taking their rejection or ambivalence too seriously. Often the pay-off is many years down the line. You just explain to your child, 'This is something our family does.' They don't have to love every single thing the family does."
Beyond activities, parents can also enlist a child's help in finding middle ground. "I have twin boys, now 21," says Tobias. "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.
"If your child says, 'To do my homework I need to lie on the floor with headphones and a bag of chips and the TV on', rather than panic because that would never work for you, say, 'I'll give you three days to prove that works'. If the homework is getting done properly and turned in on time, they proved it can. If not, you get to say, 'Nice try'."
It releases the parents, Tobias says, from trying to constantly determine and meet their child's needs when the needs are nothing like their own. "It holds the child accountable and helps him figure out his own strengths and how to use them," he says.
And emphasise your child's strengths as often as possible. "We constantly focus on deficits," says Tobias. "We start screening for the markers of depression way before we ask 'What makes you happy?' Kids get to school and are tested for deficiencies even before we ask what they do well.
"What if we said, 'You're the most restless, moving, high-energy kid. How can we use that to help you solve your maths homework?' Then as they get older they know how to figure out what works for them."
Sending your child the message that you wish they were a different person can have long-term consequences, says Nickels.
"When we push them too hard, it can be more about our needs than what they're needing," Nickels 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 good 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, fighting back and anger," she says. "Because the message you're sending is, 'I'm disappointed in you and ... something about you is not right'."
Or they'll internalise 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."