Please print this for "Ashamed in California," who feels tremendous guilt for "not loving" her hard-to-manage son. I'm a psychotherapist and the mother of two boys, one of whom is "difficult."
The reason "Ashamed" hasn't heard other moms admit to having negative feelings toward their child is they, too, feel shame. Like her, they have accepted the idea that mothers are supposed to be perfect and feel positive toward their children all the time, even if they're behaving badly.
In my clinical practice, all the mothers admit to not liking their kids at times. You advising of "Ashamed" to have her son evaluated for a possible disorder was good advice. But if she does and there is no diagnosis, her son could simply be a headstrong child. (They usually grow up to be likable, responsible adults, by the way.)
Her misery can be alleviated by understanding that she's not a bad parent for having totally normal feelings. Love for a child is constant. Liking can vary from minute to minute, depending on how the child is acting.
- Psychotherapist in S.C.
DEAR PSYCHOTHERAPIST: Thank you for sharing your insight. Many readers were eager to share their personal experiences of dealing with a difficult child and the range of emotions that goes along with it. Read on:
DEAR ABBY: I felt the same way! I loved my oldest son, but I wasn't "in love" with him as I was the other two. He was spinning out of control, constantly whining, aggressive toward his siblings and unpleasant to be around even on a good day.
Eventually we discovered he has celiac disease (intolerance to gluten, causing a host of physical and behavior problems due to malnutrition). Once the fog cleared, we were able to see the wonderful boy he really was. For the first time in three years, I now feel love for him instead of a sense of obligation.
- Enlightened in Minnesota
DEAR ABBY: I tried many things to change my attitude toward my difficult child. As a last resort, two months ago we went to his pediatrician. After completing a physical and some paperwork, he diagnosed my son with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), as well as ADHD. He is now taking medication, and we have begun family counseling. My shame and anger dissolved as I began to understand the reasons behind his behavior and learned specific ways to deal with it.
- Understands Her Pain in Ohio
DEAR ABBY: The best advice I ever received for coping with my contrary daughter was from a neighbor who had a surly girl of her own. She made a conscientious effort to be more demonstrative to her daughter, hug her more and hold on a little tighter to show her how valued she was.
I tried it with my daughter, going out of my way several times a day to express my love for her. It was awkward at first, but I persevered. I committed myself to loving that unlovable being, but slowly and surely it paid off. At first, she would lean away, but eventually she would ask me to hold on "just one more minute."
I also had to let go of the fantasy of who my child would be - someone who would enjoy the things I enjoyed with my mom. We weren't going to cook together, visit museums or learn to sew. I had to meet her where she was. It was the challenge of my life.
My daughter is 24 now and on her own. Her life is not what I would have hoped or expected, but that's OK. We share a real and loving relationship and talk every day, and I know I'm her touchstone for love and acceptance. I can't imagine my life without her. *
- Another Mom in California