By Elizabeth Sylvester, PhD. 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. The possible combinations are virtually limitless.
Each ovum has 8 million possible chromosome combinations. So does each sperm. 8 million X 8 million = 64 trillion possible combinations. Add to this the not insignificant effect of your child’s environment and it’s a wonder we recognize our children at all.
With this wealth of possible types it’s inevitable that we will feel different degrees of rapport, familiarity and connectedness with our various children. We can easily find ourselves raising children that feel very different from us. 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 have otherwise. Our dissimilar children can amaze us with their gifts, provide us with experiences we would never have sought out on our own, and bring new empathy and insight to our view of the world.
In the rough and tumble of day-to-day life, however, a “mismatch” can cause unanticipated stress and struggles to connect. For example a loud, expressive and energetic parent of a highly sensitive child may unintentionally overstimulate the child. Such a parent may have difficulty matching her 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 her child’s natural pace, to meet her without overwhelming her, and to allow her the time and space she needs to express herself.
Conversely highly active, emotionally intense, willful children can be especially challenging for a more sensitive, irritable, or fragile parent, who may be overly stressed by the demands of keeping up with, resonating to, and setting limits with a ball of fire. In these situations, the parent may be tempted to withdraw or become overly accommodating (or permissive) in order to avoid the stress of conflict, when what the child may actually need, is to have his intensity appreciated, matched and guided. In short, parenting with attunement can be very challenging when the parent and child are dissimilar in nature.
The parent-child relationship, like any relationship, is co-constructed. That means that the parent and the child build the relationship together. Each brings his or her own unique qualities to each interaction, which affect their experience together. In the context of this elemental two-way relationship, the child creates a template for his role and his expectations for future relationships. Secure attachments result when a parent is accurately attuned to her child on a regular basis, and follows her child’s pacing much of the time. The repeated experience of being seen, understood, and well-paced creates in the child a sense of security and of feeling valued. In a home where personality differences are acknowledged, accepted, and valued, the child can develop confidence and comfort in his primary relationships. This then becomes part of his template, which is literally encoded in his developing brain.
Connecting with a child in this healthy and harmonious way is easy in theory and harder in practice. It can be quite difficult when you must leave your comfort zone to resonate with your child and to match his energy and sensibilities. However it’s in these moments of disconnection or tension that it’s so important to see the child accurately, adjust to respect the child’s natural pace and rhythm, and move with him, not against him.
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. When, as a parent, you are able to more often than not pull off this feat, you have given your child a gift he will carry within forever, the gift of feeling lovable and that others can be trusted.
The Heart and Work of Parenting blog is the written by two Psychologists, Drs. Kathy Scherer and Elizabeth Sylvester, who live and work in the heart of family life. They bring their expertise on emotional development, family attachments, neurobiology, and current scientific research to their work. The contents of this blog are sections of a book in progress; we welcome any thoughtful feedback. Website: Heart and Work.
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