By Elizabeth Sylvester, Ph.D.
Every child is a genetic roll of the dice: Maybe your child has your hair and his grandfather’s height. Maybe you recognize her father’s peaceful disposition, but something in her sense of humor reminds you of your sister. There are so many possibilities.
With this wealth of possible types, it’s inevitable that we will feel different degrees of rapport, familiarity, and connectedness with our various children. It is easy to raise children who are very different from ourselves. When there is a “match” between a parent and a child it can lead to wondrous moments of resonance, intuitive understanding, and intimacy. In instances of “mismatch,” we receive the gift of seeing life differently than we would otherwise. Dissimilar children can surprise us with their gifts and provide experiences that we wouldn’t have found on our own. They also bring empathy and new insight to our worldview.
In the rough and tumble of day-to-day life, however, a “mismatch” can cause unanticipated stress and struggles to connect. Unintentionally, parents who are loud, expressive, and energetic may overstimulate children with sensitive personalities. Such a parent may have difficulty matching their level of stimulation to the receptivity of the child, or may have difficulty recognizing the child’s more subtle expressions of emotions and needs. This parent may need to work hard to match their child’s natural pace, to meet them without overwhelming them, and to allow them the time and space they need to express themself.
For parents who are more sensitive, irritable and fragile, high-functioning, emotionally intense, or willful children, it can be a challenge to keep up with them. The parent might be tempted to withdraw, or to become too permissive (or accommodating) to avoid conflict. The child needs to be matched and guided in their intensity. In short, while it is challenging to sensitively parent a dissimilar child, this process can strengthen attachment and bolster the child’s self-worth.
As with all relationships, parent-child is co-constructed. This means that both the parent and child create the relationship together. Each person brings their unique characteristics to every interaction. This affects their experience together. The child sets a model for himself and for his future relationships by creating this two-way, elemental relationship.
Secure attachments result when a parent is accurately attuned to their child on a regular basis and follows the child’s pacing much of the time. The child will feel secure and valued if they have the opportunity to be seen, understood and well-paced. The child can feel confident and comfortable in primary relationships if their personality differences are recognized, valued, and accepted. This becomes part of the child’s template, which is literally embedded in their brain.
It is not easy to connect with your child in a healthy and harmonious manner. It can be very difficult when you need to leave your comfort zone in order to feel connected with your child and match their energy. However, it’s in these moments of disconnection or tension that it’s so important to see the child accurately, adjust to respect their natural pace and rhythm, and move with them, not against them.
Slowing and quieting when your sensitive child needs more space or time, or allowing for exuberance or rage in your intense child, can be difficult, but ultimately communicates that the child’s natural style of being is just fine. If you can do this, it is a gift you give your child. It’s the gift of being loved and trusted by others.
Sylvester, E. & Scherer, K. (2022) Relationship-based Treatment of Children and Their Parents: An integrative guide to neurobiology, attachment, regulation, and discipline. WW Norton.
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