The Real Meaning Behind Thinking ‘I Don’t Love My Kids’

What may surprise most moms and dads upon entering parenthood is that parental love isn’t always instantaneous. And I dare to say, instantaneous love isn’t even real. So what does it mean if love never comes? In other words, what should parents do if they find themselves thinking, “I don’t love my kids”?

Understanding the real meaning behind thinking ‘I don’t love my kids’ is paramount for parents to grasp in order to establish a healthy bond with their child. Once a true definition of love is set, then it is possible to target underlying issues affecting familial relationships.

I’m a mom of four and know that the range of feelings and emotions in the family home run from one extreme to the next. What’s clear to me, though, is that true love isn’t that way at all. In this article I’ll share what I’ve learned from my own experiences, as well as from prominent research, about a parent’s love and how to handle the extremes that often cloud it.

Is It Okay Not To Love Your Child?

It’s become more accepted nowadays that some parents don’t always love their child. Let’s look at what this means and why it really shouldn’t be okay to not love your child.

Though some might offer excuses, parents should really know it’s not okay not to love your child. Yes, it’s normal to experience fluctuating emotions when raising children, but it’s not normal for love to vary, too. When parents are able to separate love from emotions, then this becomes clear.

From Jean Piaget‘s works in the 1920s on parent-child bonding to John Bowlby’s ideas of attachment theory, much research has consistently shown the importance of parents caring for and loving their child. And this is the key pairing: caring for and loving. Essentially this illustrates what love actually is, an action.

So when we look at love like the action word it is, then we recognize it’s not okay to withhold love.

But why this is easier said than done for some parents? Well, there are some common reasons, or excuses, given for not loving your children. One of the most researched reasons is postpartum depression, but we’ll address this in depth in another section in order to give it the attention it deserves.

So, let’s look at another seemingly accepted reason for not loving your children: that your children are just so different from you, or the expectations you have/had for them, that it’s just too difficult to love them. This excuse, and by extension the behavior of the parents, works to normalize the feeling of disappointment as the opposite of love.

Love No Matter What (available on Amazon Kindle) by Brenda Garrison addresses how to love your child regardless of their decisions. Loving them doesn’t mean accepting what you disagree with, or more blatantly find immoral or unethical. However, as parents, we should love our kids despite their behavior, while not condoning it.

Just as Garrison’s book explains, and research shows, parents have an obligation to love their children, regardless of how their children behave. Even when we don’t approve, we must love anyway. So how do we do that?

Ways To Love Your Child Even When You Don’t Love Their Choices:

  • Be clear that you disapprove of the behavior, not of your child.
  • Use statements like ‘I don’t like that you did x, y, and z, but I love you.’
  • Resist the urge to belittle your child and certainly don’t voice/endorse name-calling.
  • Do things together that have worked in the past with your whole family, thereby minimizing the risks for confrontation or conflict.
  • Keep it low-stakes. If you know certain issues are button-pushing, don’t bring those up more than once and do it at a prescribed time. Don’t blindside your child!
  • Again, remember to focus on the act, which is more objective and less judgmental, than on your child.

What Do You Do When You Don’t Like Your Child?

Most parents understand a difference between like and love, recognizing they don’t have to always like their child while still loving them. So what should parents do when first encountering this, and what does it mean long term?

While it’s normal for parents to not like their child sometimes, it’s uncommon for it to manifest long term. If this happens, parents should focus on their behavior objectively and make applicable adjustments to like their children, but keep in mind the parental role to love them is primary.

Let’s look at what this means, to not like your child, at different stages/ages. Read on to learn more about this experience for parents of infants and toddlers; tweens and teens; and lastly, adult children.

When Parents Don’t Like Their Infants/Toddlers

As a new mom, I looked forward to my first child, who happened to be a son. I fantasized cuddles, soft baby skin, that new baby smell, and holding little fingers. Those all came at some point or another, but mostly our first months were filled instead with problems latching on, frequent spit ups, sleepless nights, and lots and lots of crying (from us both!).

To be honest, I can’t say that I really liked Brandon for quite awhile, but I did love him always.

Love for my son looked like me carefully changing diapers, warming his bottles, exhausted night time feedings, and countless sacrifices of my own will for his well-being.

It wasn’t until Brandon was probably 5 months before I really liked him. By that time, we’d gotten into a rhythm of feedings/naps/bath times etc… and he’d mostly left the colicky period behind. I was finally able to actually get to know my little boy…what made him smile, what scared him, how he liked his head stroked but didn’t like snuggles, and more.

Not liking my son in those early days wasn’t something I proclaimed, and truth be told, I often felt guilty about it or that there was something wrong with me as a mom to feel this way. But now I know better. It was normal for me to feel this way based on the circumstances. And it wasn’t wrong.

Nowadays, more and more moms (and dads) are feeling comfortable to speak out about parenting struggles that make it difficult to like their infants (or toddlers…just change colic and sleepless nights to tantrums and more sleepless nights!). This is a welcomed trend, in my opinion.

However, none of this affected my love for my son because my love was not ruled by my emotional state, or lack of sleep or shower. Love was sustained through the tough to get to the good.

Struggling to Like Your Tweens and Teens

After the infant and toddler phases, parents enjoy a somewhat easy period with their pre-adolescents. But this smooth ride becomes bumpy again as our kids enter the tween years, and is a full-on roller-coaster for parents during their kids’ teens!

What makes the tweens and teens so difficult for parents? Well, during this stage, tweens and teens experience raging hormones and growth changes alongside newfound desires for testing boundaries and asserting their independence. This means conflict is so commonplace it becomes daily routine!

And when there’s a conflict cloud that almost literally follows your child, it’s understandable that they’re difficult if not impossible to like!

What should parents do, then, when they don’t like their tween/teen?

  • Just like with any child, address the behavior you disapprove of, rather than focusing negatively on your tween/teen.
  • Remember to not confuse emotions with love. This will be difficult, since more than likely, your tween/teen will be doing just that.
  • Be sure to not only vocalize that you love your tween/teen. Say it and show it. After all, they’re watching what you do more than listening to what you say!

When You Don’t Like Your Adult Child

After foraying the turbulent tween and teen years, parents mostly look forward to having adult children. However, some might find they still are at odds. In that case, what is there to know about when you don’t like your adult child?

Parents who don’t like their adult children fall into two categories: those who are in uncharted terrain and those who find the problems from tween/teen years are continuing to rear their ugly head.

If this is the just a continuance of conflict for your family, then truly, I’m so sorry! It’s especially disheartening for parents who have struggled year after year to have a healthy, content relationship with their children. Parents in this situation often become callous and hopeless. I encourage you to hold fast and stay strong!

Tip to Try Take a fresh approach. Try something that hasn’t worked. Yet, be faithful to your convictions. If, for example, the strain is due to your child’s continued use of drugs or abuse of alcohol, don’t feel like you must compromise. Nevertheless, continue to reach out, open your heart, and let your child know you will always love him or her. You certainly don’t have to like this path they’ve taken even while liking them!

Yet it could be that parents find themselves at a new juncture in life. It may be that this is the first realization that they don’t like their child, when he or she has become an adult and just happened to have turned into someone you wouldn’t have chosen at all! What then?

Suggestion Think about the reasons for this, and then adjust your expectations realistically and rationally. Usually this happens because parent and adult child simply have opposing viewpoints on big issues and one or both are quite vocal about it. Or it’s due to big personality conflicts. In any case, agree to disagree. Recognize you aren’t friends (and as parents, you shouldn’t be ‘friends’ with your children!). And try to find common ground where you can. Treat your children respectfully, and lovingly always. They are worth it!

Here are related articles about parent-child relationships:

When A Parent Says I Feel Nothing For My Child

Eighty percent of women experience ‘baby blues’ after giving birth, which is normal and expected. However, 15% experience an extreme of this called ‘postpartum depression,’ which is not normal and requires extra support and intervention to overcome.

And finally, let’s look at some severe, heart wrenching examples of parents, or parenting, without love. From the issue of postpartum depression to fathers and mothers who commit the ultimate crime by harming their babies, what can be learned from this, if anything?

When a parent says I feel nothing for my child, there’s a need for swift intervention. Moms suffering from postpartum depression require immediate, ongoing medical support, whereas all parents who exhibit lack of care should be monitored or supervised closely to prevent harm to children.

Though only cursory due to space constraints, I’ve briefly addressed areas where a parent’s love is missing or inhibited: postpartum depression; mental illness; and toxic parents.

Postpartum Depression Can Inhibit A Mother’s Love

Studies show that left untreated, postpartum depression can have drastic, devastating effects on both mother and child. Without proper treatment, infants particularly suffer a range of issues affecting physiological, psychological, language, and social development.

But the good news is that the stigma of postpartum depression is waning, making it easier for moms to seek help, which is needed since 1 in 10 moms experience PPD.

For instance, Down Came the Rain (available with an Audible free trial) by model/actress Brooke Shields is about her personal story of postpartum depression and dealing with a not-so-desirable experience following the birth of her first baby.

According to the Mayo Clinic, signs of postpartum depression like mood swings, sadness, reduced concentration, and loss of appetite are similar to the more common baby blues experienced by 85% of new moms, but are much more extreme. In addition, moms with postpartum depression may also have suicide ideation or other thoughts of self-harm.

Rarely do moms with postpartum depression harm their babies.

Moms or Dads with Mental Illness May Have Trouble Loving

In June 2001, Andrea Yates committed the ultimate crime against her children, drowning all five of them, age 7 to 6 months. A year later her capital murder conviction was overturned and she’s lived in a mental institution ever since.

Another extreme reason, also known as an outlier, some moms and/dads may seem ambivalent to their children is due to personal mental illness. Andrea Yates is one example of a mom suffering mental illness who harmed her children.

Now those who knew/know of Yates purported that she loved her children; this was a recurring theme during the aftermath and her trial. Yet we now understand that love is an action, not a verbal declaration. Therefore, Yates did not love her children, given that she confessed to murdering them.

But we can also acknowledge that she possibly wasn’t responsible or culpable for her actions, if indeed she suffered a mental illness. This is the overwhelming belief after all evidence has been provided, and why her conviction was overturned with her living in a mental facility ever since.

Special Note: If you or someone you know show signs of mental illness, especially if children are involved, please seek help from family or close friends, clergy, or medical experts. Resources include National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI and National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8253).

Toxic Parents Love Themselves Over Their Children

The last type of parents that I’ll address who don’t love their child has become commonly known as ‘toxic parents.’ Toxic parents, though a more modern terminology, have existed throughout history, but are probably more recognized today due to social media and other advancements in communicative technology.

Toxic parents may be narcissists, but mostly, they just do what benefits them over doing what’s healthy and preferable for their children. Toxic parents are truly ‘anti-parents’: living as if they aren’t parents at all and not in care of anyone other than themselves.

Negatives of toxic parenting may seem mild since they don’t necessarily include physical abuse (though it’s still possible.). Yet, most all medical experts and specialists agree that emotional and mental abuse from toxic parents can be just as debilitating and harmful for children whether or not physical abuse is also involved.

Some Toxic Parents in Pop Culture:

  • Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho
  • Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood in the book and movie, Matilda
  • Red from That 70s Show
  • Joan Crawford’s character in Mommy Dearest
  • Selina Meyer in Veep
  • Carrie’s mom from the book, Carrie by Stephen King
  • Miss Havisham, Estella’s adopted mother, in Great Expectations
  • Tywin Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire book series (and Game of Throne tv series) by George R.R. Martin
  • Mama Soprano from The Sopranos

The Takeaway for ‘I Don’t Love My Kids’

To summarize The Real Meaning Behind Thinking ‘I Don’t Love My Kids’, let’s first remind ourselves of the true definition of love: love is an action. It’s not an emotion, despite Hollywood’s attempt to make us think otherwise.

Simply put, a mom or dad shows love daily when they put their kid’s needs, and often wants, above their own.

Mistakenly parents sometimes think that loving their child means they should also like them. Ideally, parents should be raising their children in a way to make them likable. However, there will be days when your kids just…aren’t. And it’s ok to admit it!

Although outliers exist, too. That is, there are those who don’t love their children even if they don’t say it. Whether from mental illness or from being morally compromised, some parents don’t (show) love (towards) their children.

As parents there is nothing more important than our job of raising our kids, and this requires us to love them. If you struggle with that, seek help, even if embarrassed or shamed. Your kids are worth it!

Here are related articles about parent-child relationships:

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