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When Children Reject, Disrespect, and Disappoint

Young girl playing piano

A client recently described how thrilling it was to take her daughter to see the Broadway musical Annie.  She recalled that her mother took her to see it when she was a child, and it had been an indelibly wonderful experience. Now she had the pleasure of providing the same thrill for her daughter. I thought how special it was for my client to share this with her daughter and how lucky my client was that her daughter had the same feelings about the experience. It also reminded me that so many parents who want to provide what they believe to be all the right things for their children are not always met with such good feelings.

I recalled another client whose desire to recreate his delight for his son was dashed when he took him to the rodeo and was met with the response, “This is stupid.” In spite of their most nurturing and positive intentions, parents may find that their wishes and rules for their children are met with rejection. This can create painful feelings, including insult, hurt, anger, and disappointment. “Drew,” a 42-year-old client, was in a prolonged struggle with his 8-year-old daughter about piano lessons she adamantly refused to take. He told me, “When I was a kid, I refused to continue piano lessons after a few months. My parents never insisted I continue. I’m not going to let that happen to my daughter. She isn’t old enough to know what she wants or what the consequences of her actions will be.”

As Drew and I explored his feelings, it became clear that he not only felt disappointed, he felt rejected by his daughter. “It feels like she is telling me, ‘Get out of here, you don’t know what’s good for me,’ ” he said. I responded: “I can see how upset you are about this, but I wonder what it is that makes you feel so personally rejected. Is it possible that your daughter is different from you?” Drew’s first response was, “She’s my daughter and she is like me. I just know this is very important for her to do. When I was a child, I didn’t know I was making a terrible mistake. My parents should have known and pushed me to continue.”

It took a lot of talking for Drew to become aware of his many disappointments about the ways his parents had been involved in his life when he was a child. He began to consider that he might not need to protect his daughter from this disappointment. He recognized that his daughter might, like him, regret not learning the piano, but forcing her to take lessons could easily turn her away from the piano. He realized that her experience and development was and will be different from his and she is a different person with her own thoughts and feelings. After all, she has different parents than he did. The more Drew could understand his daughter’s need to differentiate from him, the easier it was not to feel so rejected and hurt.

When parents assert their desires for their children, it is not unusual for them to be met with expressions of different or opposing wants and needs. Pushing back against what parents want is a necessary part of a child’s development. For a healthy sense of self to grow, children need to differentiate from their parents and become unique, separate, individual selves. This doesn’t mean children are totally different from or always in opposition to their parents. It does mean children need to develop minds of their own. Having one’s own mind is about being able to think about your needs and wants without being overly influenced by others. Ideally, the wishes of others are considered, but ultimately one makes his or her own life choices. Obviously, the degree of autonomy for a 4-year-old differs from that of a 13-year-old and again for a 20-year-old. When children are not given the space to differentiate from their parents and don’t develop a self that is confident and strong, they will not have developed the autonomy to make life choices and get what they want as they enter full adulthood.

At age 53, “Anne” was struggling with her teenage son, “Noah.” She came to therapy expressing feelings of anger and insult from their encounters. She explained that he fought her at every turn about anything she asked of him: cleaning his room, doing household chores, getting his college applications completed.  “I don’t believe how he treats me,” she said. “He says things like, ‘Leave me alone and mind your own business.’ Is that any way to speak to your mother? I feel so hurt and insulted. Doesn’t he know I only want what’s best for him?” In great distress, Anne added, “He has become a terrible person. He is so mean and inconsiderate. He seems like a completely different person than the son I felt loved me a year ago.”

As we talked, Anne described how when she was growing up she never went against her parents. When we explored her past and present relationships, Anne began to wonder if her early experiences being compliant are related to her difficulty asserting herself as an adult. She described how difficult it is for her to disagree with her husband and how she doesn’t always feel so good about herself. She realized that it wasn’t just with her son that she felt so badly treated. “I guess I don’t feel very powerful,” she said. “I have a lot of trouble believing that what I think and feel is OK. I always followed the rules with my parents. Maybe I didn’t develop what Noah needs to do—be someone who feels OK asserting himself when there is opposition.” Many parents with teenagers experience difficult feelings in their parent-teenager relationships. For Anne, the feelings of insult and rejection were intolerable. Even worse for her was the terrible shame she felt about her negative feelings toward her son: “I’m the terrible person. Mothers shouldn’t feel this way.”

How to handle this kind of situation with teenagers is controversial. Furthermore, how any parent hears what a child says is open to interpretation and may be related to how the parent differentiated from his or her own parents. While Anne felt insulted and hurt, another parent in these circumstances might shrug and think, “When will these awful teenage years pass?” On one end of the continuum of parental response, parents might believe that a child of any age should never be permitted to say anything that is hurtful, disrespectful, or angry to a parent. At the other end of the response continuum, parents might accept any expression their child makes without intervening. An extreme example might be if a teenager said, “You’re an awful parent, you have no business having children,” and a parent made no protest about being treated that way. On this far end of the continuum, the lack of a parental response to push against doesn’t provide the child with the feeling that there is a strong parental self to separate from. If there is no other out there to individuate from, it becomes difficult for a child to develop a sense of who he or she is and the ability to be autonomous. The child is left wondering, “Who am I?” Potentially more problematic, the child may be left with a feeling of powerlessness. He or she has not been given the experience of successfully asserting his or her developing self in the world.

There is a lot of room along this continuum for parents to develop responses that feel comfortable to them while allowing some room for their children to develop their unique selves. It helps if parents let their children know what behaviors are acceptable. For instance, telling a child, “You can’t talk to me that way” is not the same as saying, “You can’t be angry at me,” or “You are hurting my feelings.”

When children respond to parents in disappointing or unacceptable ways, it is important that parents stop and consider how they will meet that response. Each situation requires thought. Sometimes, interfering with the child’s wishes or experiences provides an opportunity for the child to push back against the parent and feel a sense of his or her developing self. At other times, supporting the child’s differentiation provides the child with a sense of confidence and recognition of his or her developing self. No matter the age of the child, parents who are curious and interested in why there is disparity or opposition are communicating their openness to more than one way of behaving and/or feeling. This openness to difference helps children develop into self-confident, autonomous adults. Moreover, parents are less likely to repeat the dynamics of their own childhoods if they consider their children’s behavior from a developmental perspective. They will be in a better position to not take things so personally and will feel less hurt, insulted, or disrespected by their children.

© Copyright 2012 by Beverly Amsel, PhD, therapist in New York, NY. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • Steve October 12th, 2012 at 2:54 PM #1

    I never felt that sense of rejection and disapproval from my own daughter until she turned 12, and then when that happened it’s like overnight I became a pariah and she wanted to have nothing to do with me.
    I wondered what I had done, how I could change things and regain that close relationship that we once had together.
    After reading a great book called Reviving Ophelia, I realized that it could happen again, but that it would take time.
    She was simply spreading her wings and going through adolescence and as much as I wanted to be able to help her through that, she determined that she needed to go it alone and di not need that help from me.
    Fortunately like all things I learned that this too would pass, but it was a difficult stage for both of us.

  • kiara October 12th, 2012 at 11:51 PM #2

    sometimes my parents take things i disagree upon as personal attack!I never mean it personally to them but they think just because I’m their child anything I say against what they think is right is rebellion and an act against them.A healthy team has disagreements too,right?

  • Lisa October 13th, 2012 at 6:41 AM #3

    It’s hard to have that feeling of being disappointed by your own children. I try to temper that but there are still times when I feel that sense of disappointment when I know they could have tried harder and did not do their best and that is hard to deal with at times.

  • usher October 13th, 2012 at 1:59 PM #4

    Kids today do not realize just how good they have it and how much latitude they have compared to when we were growing up. I watch some parents with their kids and how much they let them get away with and let them talk to them and to be truthful, if I had talked to my parents like the way some of these kids do I would have probably been picking myself up off the floor a time or too. I don’t advocate for that kind of abuse, but what I do advocate for is respect for your elders and those who raise you and I see this as a real deficiency that is missing from the youth culture today.

  • Micah October 14th, 2012 at 8:08 AM #5

    This is something that is never going to have a clear answer,isnt it?No one side is completely right or wrong but a middle ground is what works best.Children need to be considerate to parents and understand their concern.And parents need to realize that as children grow up they are trying to find their own identity and they are not the same little toddlers that would wear what we put on them and eat what we ask them to.Being aware of change is what is required form both sides and mutual respect is required.

  • Sara October 14th, 2012 at 10:11 AM #6

    Sometimes parents over react to things. Kids have right to share their opinion. As long as its nothing horribly disrespectful. What is disrespectful anymore anyways? Sometimes my parents tell me “stop,that’s disrespectful.” And i wonder what I did wrong. Shutting off our kid from their opinion can hurt them in the long run. That’s just my experience though.

  • Ron October 15th, 2012 at 4:22 AM #7

    when they do all these things? guess what? thye are still your kids and deserve your love

  • janey F October 16th, 2012 at 11:07 AM #8

    I would bet that not many parents are looking at their own actions after a child disappoints them and wonders what they could have been doing wrong. maybe you have set your expectations too high? maybe you have placed too much pressure on the child? Maybe you have made life with you so unreasonable and so unbearable that they fail to care whether they succeed or not anymore? It is so easy to point the finger of blame at the kids when many times, not all of the time but a lot of the time, the paren and his or her actions or words can lead you straight to the heart of the problem. But we don’t really want to see it like that do we?

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