Feeling Unloved, Rejected, Worried About Your Relationship with Your Child? Try This…

Janet shares a success story from a parent who describes her shame, heartbreak, “the heavy emotional load” she carried for the first 4 years of her son’s life as he vehemently rejected her care, preferring his father. After reading one of Janet’s articles, this mom began to see her son’s behavior in a whole new light and improve her situation almost immediately. “I am now confident that whatever happens—whatever my son will throw at me (even when he hits puberty)—I can handle it.”

Transcript of “Feeling Unloved, Rejected, Worried About Your Relationship with Your Child? Try This…”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be sharing a success story that a parent submitted to me, actually quite a while ago, but I finally was able to get back to her and ask her if it’s okay for me to share. She suffered from an issue that’s pretty common, actually, when there are two parents: that one seems to be preferred by the child over the other, perhaps vehemently. The other parent is rejected. And this can go on for quite some time. It’s obviously discomforting for parents, it’s discouraging, it’s worrisome. And so the parent I’m going to share from today, she had that issue, she was the non-preferred parent for years. And she’s thrilled to have discovered that there’s a mental shift that she could make that helped her to see the situation totally differently and it gave her tremendous relief.

I’ll just start right off with this note:

Dear Janet,

More than a year has passed since you saved my mental sanity. And since it has been so long, I can now fully say that it worked. And I really need you to know this because it is so profound. Here’s the story.

From birth, my son was more attached to my husband than me. I had an emergency c-section and was shaking so much when they stitched me back up that I didn’t dare hold my son until after half-an-hour or so because I was so afraid my shaking would give him brain damage, and nobody told me that was nonsense. I know that piecing these things together, the rough start and the preferred parent thing, is not really helpful (in hindsight) because these create a narrative and keep it firmly rooted in my mind. And what goes on in my mind is perfectly readable to my child.

Anyway, up until my son was almost four years old, every day I felt this dark cloud on my shoulder. My shame about being the non-preferred parent, which to me as a mother felt so strange because it’s usually the other way around. And the knowledge that every night I would be heartbroken, as my child would need to go to bed and would make it extremely clear that he didn’t want me to do it. It was like a heavy emotional load.

And searching for answers on the internet didn’t help because I only found articles on this being a phase. But for us it wasn’t a phase, and that made me feel worse. Until I found your article. The advice you gave, the mental shift, the reframing, it was everything. It made all the difference, not only in how I felt about it, but also—and probably also as a result—in how my son reacted to me.

I kid you not, within a week, my son wasn’t opposed to me bringing him to bed anymore. He was still asking most of the times for his dad, but it wasn’t like he was screaming about it, acting like I was the worst person in the world. And within the month, he didn’t even ask for his dad to bring him to bed. And now, more than a year later, there’s hardly a difference, if any, between my husband and me.

And I didn’t “do anything.” No tricks or manipulations, which is usually the case with parenting methods, which is probably why they’re called methods. Just an internal mental shift made all the difference. And for that, I am eternally grateful. You didn’t literally save my life, of course, but you did save my relationship with my child. The one that was on fire for three years is now perfectly healed within a year, and if there is a scar, it’s mine, not his. And I proudly wear it, because somehow I feel like it has made me so very strong.

That scar doesn’t only represent a problem that I overcame, but that problem made me stronger in a bigger sense as well. I have ADHD and I’m often insecure about my capabilities, but I am now confident that whatever happens, whatever my son will throw at me when he hits puberty, I can handle it. I don’t claim to know everything or to always know how to respond right away and do it perfectly, but I do know that whatever happens, I will figure it out.

And I will be able to emotionally handle it, because it’s not about me. The things he might say or do, they’re not about me, they’re about him, and I am the superhero you described. The weird things will be on a different plane of existence. They’re there, and they have the right to be there, but I feel safe and my bond with him feels safe because that is on a whole different plane entirely. And whatever happens, this is my time to shine, my time to be the superwoman I know I always am, but finally gets to rip off the everyday clothes to show up and show him that I’m his superhero, no matter what he says or thinks of me.

I especially realized my personal growth here about six months ago when my son started saying hurtful things to me and my husband at the table, and I realized that it made me smile. That I felt this was an opportunity to shine and show him that it didn’t bother me at all, because it really didn’t. I actually enjoyed it, as if I was a fireman waiting for a fire to extinguish. And I realized my husband was more or less saying the same things as I was, but that he was acting, that he wasn’t comfortable with it. And then I saw that my son kept up saying the hurtful things to my husband but didn’t say them to me anymore. And I thought, Well, that’s Janet for you. And the easier way isn’t the most informative way.

I have learned so much. It was rough, but I learned, I grew. I’ve been telling every person who was slightly interested in me and/or parenting all about this and about respectful parenting, but mostly about this and how you’ve changed my life. I just want you to know that you saved my mom-life. I don’t know what sort of mother I would grow into if I hadn’t found your advice. I don’t want to know.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you. I will always remember.

And she says she comes “all the way from across the Atlantic in the Netherlands.”

P.S. Do you have advice about being bored as a parent? You already said in your podcast that it is not our job to play with our child, it is not even helpful, etc., etc. But I also read in Gabor Mate’s book Scattered Minds that if a child might be at risk due to genes to develop ADHD—which is definitely the case here, especially because our bond wasn’t the best the first three years—you need to smother your child with attention, unasked-for attention. And just in general, it is good to be fully present with your child if you’re with them. So do you have any advice on how to really be there and what you can do to be fully involved without being bored or having your eyes glaze over when you listen to a very slow story? I know watching him play unasked-for is good, I do that now.

But can you recommend any activities that are also fun for the parent? We have a museum card, so unlimited access to almost all museums for free, so we do that often. But even then, I feel like I hardly ever look him in the eye. How can you make yourself more present and enjoy yourself?

Obviously I was really grateful to get this note. And she’s actually quite insightful, so many of the things she says. The mental shift. Yes, that’s what has helped me and so many parents to have an easier time of it as a parent and just enjoy it more and find it richer and more rewarding in every way.

What interests me about success stories or any kind of feedback from parents is, first of all, what the parent feels needs to be shifted, and then, what it is that hits home for a particular parent. We’re all unique, and some people say I repeat a lot here, but I know that for me, it took what it took for it to hit. And it kind of took it coming from a bunch of different directions with this advice for me to be able to internalize the whole picture. It sounds like this parent has done that or done a good part of it, at least. And yes, once we do that, we don’t need every tidbit of advice for every situation. It does free us. She calls this a mental shift, the reframing.

And what I reframed in that article, for those that haven’t read it, the article is When Children Prefer One Parent. And the reframe here is to understand that usually what the child is responding to when they are rejecting us is not that they love us less, that they don’t like us, that we do everything wrong. What they’re often responding to is the discomfort that we’re putting out there, without meaning to, because something happened that made us insecure about ourselves as parents and ourselves in the relationship with this child.

With this parent, it sounds like this situation after birth made her insecure. And whether there’s any validity to a child feeling less bonded with a parent because of what happened at birth, where she said she was shaking so much that she thought she would give her child brain damage by holding him, that may or may not have made the slightest bit of difference to him, but to her it did. It planted this seed. And with that seed of insecurity inside her, that her child then picked up on, there’s a neediness that comes from that seed of insecurity. Now I need you to prove to me that I’m wrong about this, that you are still bonding with me, that you do still love me. It’s that seed and that neediness that children are uncomfortable with. I think we can relate to that even as adults. When someone is needy, needy of our validation, needy of our attention, wanting us to show them that we like them, that we want to be with them, it is off-putting. And as a child, they don’t understand, of course, where it’s coming from and it just feels like, this isn’t giving me comfort as the child. The other parent’s giving me the comfort, and this parent is too uncomfortable in their own skin to be able to do that.

So that’s this puzzle that is very, very often what’s behind the preference thing. And sometimes it is a phase and sometimes it’s good for us to realize it’s a phase because then we don’t give it too much credence. But this parent, and many of the parents I work with, they do give it credence and it can be so painful and confusing and just heartbreaking, really, to feel rejection upon rejection, which only increases our neediness and then there’s more rejection. It can wear us down.

But this parent found her way out, I think because in that article I encouraged her to know that it’s not personal. There’s no reason a child would not feel equally bonded with their parents. There are reasons that are to do with harshness and rejection the parent’s doing or, in extreme cases, abuse, of course. Well, clearly that wasn’t going on for this parent or most of the parents that come to me because they wouldn’t even be involved in trying to figure out parenting if they were like that. And even if there was an incident, they could easily turn that around by just not doing it anymore. Our children are so ready to adapt in this way. They’re so ready to adapt to, Oh, now my parent is comfortable and I can be comfortable with them. That’s a huge win for them, they want that more than anything. And young children will accept a lot of negative things before they would ever reject a parent. They’re not inclined to do that. Their need for us is so strong. Everything in them wants to be close with us.

And when we can meet children with that knowledge about ourselves, with that understanding that, as this parent said so clearly, it’s not about her, it’s about him feeling comfortable. When we see that, then yes, we can be the hero that says, You know what? I’m going to turn this corner. You can reject me when it’s my turn to put you to bed. I’m still going to do it. And you can yell at me and be uncomfortable with me, but I’m not going to put the discomfort out there. I’m not going to feel sorry for myself and worried and need you to validate me, because I have a clear picture of what’s going on here. I, as the parent, am reacting off of my child. The problem is my child reacting off of me. So that means I have so much power, because all I have to do is change what I’m putting out there, starting with the way I feel inside.

It was interesting how she noticed a difference between when we’re acting it and when we believe it, and how children, with their keen ability to read our minds and feel our emotions, they see through that most of the time. Yes, there is a bit of that fake it til we make it kind of thing. But generally children need us to make the mental shift this parent made. Which again, is no small thing, but we’re all capable of it. I made so many mental shifts as a parent to be able to set limits. That was a really hard one for me, to not be pleasing my child, who I loved and needed and wanted that validation from, that I was making them happy, that I was pleasing them, and to do the opposite because I love them so much that I care about these boundaries. That was a hard one. I really had to make the shift to redefining love. Many of us have mental shifts that come with the territory when we’re in this parenting journey, and the sooner we can understand them and make them, the easier our lives will be.

I really appreciate how this parent described the transition from him completely rejecting her as the one to put him to bed, to where he was still putting up that complaint, but it sort of melted away quickly when she didn’t buy into it, when she didn’t take it personally. Where she says, “within a week, my son wasn’t opposed to me bringing him to bed anymore.” A week after she made this shift in her mind. “He was still asking most of the times for his dad, but it wasn’t like he was screaming about it, acting like I was the worst person in the world,” which I guess he’d been doing before. I mean, how hard is that for this parent? “And within the month, he didn’t even ask for his dad to bring him to bed. And now, more than a year later, there’s hardly a difference, if any, between my husband and me. And I didn’t ‘do anything.’ No tricks or manipulations. Just an internal mental shift made all the difference.”

And she says, “just an internal mental shift,” right? That’s a big deal. What it did was give her strength, from what she says, in every area. Wow, if I can do this, if I can be rejected and love him through that and love myself through that, even more importantly, I can do anything, right? What else is he going to throw at me? I’ve already done the hardest thing. So that’s what she got out of this. She talks about her scar, but how it’s strengthened her. And I felt that too in regard to my mental shift with discipline. Wow, if I can upset my child because I love them so much that I care enough to do the hard things, saying no when I kind of want to say yes, but then I’m going to be annoyed or then my child is going to do something that’s not helpful to them in the long run. If I can do that, then I can do anything.

And that she saw these difficult situations as her “time to shine.” Yes, I definitely used to see that too. You’ve heard me talk a lot here about the superhero suit, but yeah, it’s like, Okay, you’re on. This is the big time. You can do this. We all have it in us. Every one of us, no matter how many things we’ve done wrong as a parent or as a person, we all have that in us. That we can rise above, that we can be that strong, heroic side of ourselves. That that is the real us.

So now I want to speak to this parent’s question: “Do you have advice about being bored as a parent? You already said in your podcast that this is not our job to play with our child. It’s not even helpful. But I also read in Gabor Mate’s book Scattered Minds that if a child might be at risk due to genes to develop ADHD—which is definitely the case here, especially because our bond wasn’t the best for the first three years—you need to smother your child with attention, unasked-for attention.” And then she asks, “Do you have any advice on how to really be there and what you can do to be fully involved without being bored or having your eyes glaze over when you listen to a very slow story?”

The cool thing about what happened here is that when I finally wrote back to this parent asking if I could share her story on this podcast, she really answered that question without knowing it, about being bored as a parent and if she needed to smother her child with love. Here’s what she said. First I apologized because it had taken me so long to write back to her. She said:

Don’t be sorry. I didn’t even expect a reply at all. I’m so happy you’ve read it because it’s so important to me that you know how you actually really saved our lives. As a Dutch person, I sometimes feel like people living in the U.S. use such phrases a little bit too liberally to be taken seriously. I hope that doesn’t offend. People over there seem so enthusiastic about so many things that I often have difficulty believing that they aren’t exaggerating. Where I live, people aren’t so enthusiastic about things generally. What I’m trying to say is when a person like me makes such a claim as “this really changed my life,” it is a rare thing and it really means a lot.

I wrote back:

Amazing, and I really appreciate your comment about it meaning more to Europeans to say those things. The approach I teach is European, and I found that so refreshing, the authenticity. Magda herself was the epitome of authenticity, and I value that so much. Authentic discussion, authentic with our emotions. This is part of what inspired me to parent differently from the way that I was raised and the culture here: authentic relationships in which we can be ourselves. We’re enough. What a concept, right?

Now, why do I think this answers the question that she asked me? Well, first of all, I didn’t read the book Scattered Minds, so I’m not sure of the context that these comments came from that Gabor Mate made. But I can’t agree that children want anything from us that’s not authentic. And, as this parent realizes, her child knows the difference, they know it better than we do almost when we’re being less than authentic. And does it feel good to a child? Is it nurturing to be with someone whose eyes are glazing over or who’s bored, doesn’t want to be doing what they’re doing? I don’t believe so. It wouldn’t to me, with another adult.

Also, I can’t agree that we need to try to make up for something when a child has ADHD possibly or any type of neurodivergence. That this is some kind of deficit that now we have to go overboard to make up for in our relationship with our child. I don’t believe that works or would ring true to that child and be at all helpful. I think in a way it might make them feel that they have a deficit, that there’s something sad or wrong or something about them that they can’t be upset with us, that they can’t be sometimes wanting things from us that we can’t give them.

I don’t know if I’m getting this right, again, because I haven’t read the book, but that’s one of my takes on what she said. And what I believe is part of the same mental shift that she’s talking about making as the un-preferred parent. The un-preferred parent has to come to the realization that they are enough. It’s not some deficit in them, that they’re not a good parent or that they’re not lovable as a parent. Ideally, we’ll see that we can be our whole selves and that we are enough.

And that’s the same thing here, on both ends. That a child feels that way in the way that we’re interacting with them. That we’re honest with them, we’re genuine, we’re not pretending. And we’re not overcompensating for something that can feel crippling towards them. I don’t know if this is a controversial take or not, but this is how I feel about that from everything that I’ve learned. Kids know. It’s that thing, they read our minds. So why wouldn’t we want them to read, I’m going to always let you know when I don’t want to be with you and I want to do something else. And when I do want to be with you, that’s going to be pure. That’s never going to be fake. You can trust me that way. When I say something, just like the Europeans, it means a lot. It’s not empty, it’s not patronizing. It’s not pitying, desperate or insecure, making up for something. It’s real, always.

So what I recommend, just on a practical level, to this parent is: take advantage of caregiving routines. And with a four-year-old, or actually maybe he’s five now, as children get beyond the diapers and the feedings that we’re doing where we’re holding them in our arms and feeding, this still matters. This idea that we’re sitting at a dinner table or a lunch table, or I’m helping you get from the house to the car to school, or we’re walking somewhere. Sometimes we won’t be face-to-face, just fully present. But take those times, those transition times, those caregiving times, when you’re hearing him share about something that happened during his day, a pleasant thing or a sad thing or an uncomfortable thing. Take your moments, those natural moments that life presents us to be intimate. Just keep that in mind. It will feel organic.

And then from there, if you want to go to the museum or do something fun that you think is fun as well, or you would just enjoy him enjoying it so much, go for it, with a big Yes!, not an, Oh, okay. Okay, I guess so, I’ll do it. It’s either, “You know what, I would love to, but I can’t. I hear how much you want me to, and you get to be mad at me about that.” Or it’s, “Yes, let’s do it!” That kind of clarity, that kind of authenticity, nothing in between. That’s what our children need from us. What any type of child needs from any type of parent: authenticity.

That’s maybe a few inches more of the mental shift that I recommend this parent makes. She’s already done the hardest part by far, by reframing everything in her relationship and her sense of self as a parent. This is just going a little bit further to, Oh, I actually can be myself. That’s what my child wants. Not some more fun parent, the parent that wants to play games all the time, if I’m not that kind of parent. The parent that’s silly, if I’m not feeling silly. No, they want us. We’re it. So feel that, be it, be yourself. Maybe discover yourself more if you’ve been subjugating yourself a little bit to try to please. That’s the rest of the mental shift. It’s not, again, just a mental shift. It is a life-changing thing. It has been that for me, not in just the areas where I needed help, but in every area of my life.

Thank you to this parent, again. Congratulations to this parent. I hope she continues on this path, she’s got it. And so generous of her to share with me and allow me to share it with everyone listening.

For more about the journey that I was talking about, my discipline journey, I share everything I’ve learned from that in my No Bad Kids Master Course. If you haven’t yet checked that out, you might want to at nobadkidscourse.com. And my books have been rereleased by Penguin Random House, and I’m very proud and excited. Here they are in paperback: No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

Also, here’s is the article that I believe this parent is referring to: When Children Prefer One Parent.

Thank you so much for listening, and all your kind support. We can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Can you link to the original article? Thank you! Great episode 🙂

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