I really didn't like my son
Helen Bale often couldn't stand her 10-year-old son, Jack, but didn't know why. She describes frankly how she felt – and how she rescued their relationship
'Get inside the house!" I say, in a low growl, which I hope the neighbours can't hear.
"No," replies Jack.
"Listen, you brat" – tempers are frayed – "I know I promised a trip to the ice-cream place, but auntie died two days ago and we are too upset, too busy. We'll go another time."
In the emotional-manipulation game, I've played my trump card. Now Jack plays his: "I don't give a f**k that auntie died."
I stare at my eldest child, who meets my apoplectic gaze with blank defiance, and the thought hits me like a saucepan to the head: I don't like you.
How did we get to this?
Jack is 10 and reminds me of Two-Face in Batman. He has a capacity for gentleness, is kind, generous and sensitive at heart. Yet his innate goodness – that soft, precious side – is these days mostly hidden beneath an arrogant, flinty exterior. His teacher likes his intelligence and wit, but confesses that her assistant finds him cocky and rude.
I agree. I feel a gouging ache of despair, even though I know that if I question him, he'll be indignant and exclaim that the assistant always, unfairly, blames him when it's the girls' fault.
Often, Jack seethes with latent rage and the tiniest imperfection will cause an eruption – last night, a too squashy satsuma. He is ferociously competitive and casually cruel to his young brother – elbowing him on the stairs, so that the poor child flinches every time he passes his tormentor. He reaches extremes of emotion in seconds, screaming, crying, hurling books across the room. It's frightening because he is easily as strong as I am.
Recently, he called his father a bastard for forbidding him to watch South Park. If I'd spoken to my parents like that, I told Jack, I'd have been hit across the room. "And would that have been right?" enquired my son coolly.
I'm not Zen enough to always remain impassive when provoked. I don't want to be a parent who hits, but I have grabbed Jack roughly, scratching his arm, to prevent him attacking his brother. I apologised with the weasel caveat, "Listen to me, then I won't have to physically restrain you."
My son isn't stupid. He senses my fleeting dislike and it is poisoning our relationship. I lurch between futile forgiveness and condemnation. If we ban him from his favourite sport as punishment, we fuel his anger. But if we talk ourselves hoarse, he barely listens. Or he might cry, feel contrite, submit to a cuddle, then revert to venom and violence the instant he's tested.
After 10 years of cack-handed mothering, it strikes me I have no idea what to do.
As I argue with my son in the street, I wonder if I possess the mental strength to be a parent. As I start to write this, venting my frustration, each word feels like a betrayal of a small boy who should trust me.
My sister-in-law says: "He tries so hard to please you – he always looks to you for approval."
What she says resonates. I'm so desperate to change the situation that over the following months, I force myself to be warm, tolerant, minimise blame, smile – even when I want to yell my head off, like when he methodically picks the stuffing out of the dining-room chair.
I also consult Gaynor Sbuttoni, an educational psychologist who specialises in emotional issues. She says that as a parent, I must see that I come second. I must allow him to be angry, look for a solution, but limit the behaviour. Tell him: "You can't hurt anyone, you can't hurt yourself and you can't break things. But you can get your anger out and when it's over we'll carry on and we'll do the right thing."
Sbuttoni adds: "With most children, anger is covering up their anxiety. If he was feeling you didn't like him – how scary is that? If your mum can't love you nobody can."
At last I recognise what is happening. I also see that I am not a victim of his behaviour; I have the power to stop it.
I comment on his every good deed: "That was kind of you, to read to your brother." I try to promote intimacy. I have a foolish reticence, as if by pushing myself close, I'm interfering. At heart, I'm scared of his rejection. But when I join him in the garden to play, he is so pleased and surprised I feel ashamed for holding back.
I give him credit. I recognise we expect a lot of him.
Sbuttoni explains: "A boy, developing emotionally, is fraught with pain. On the outside they are supposed to be big and strong and tough – inside they've got real feelings and are trying to cover them up, understand them – and many people do not acknowledge that with boys. It's still hard for a boy to talk about feelings and when he has an adult who allows him to, there is friction inside: 'I can do all this talking but when I get with the gang, I have to be angry, abusive and aggressive so that the male community will accept me as a male.'
'All kids are struggling with so much and mum is the one they test it out on," she says.
My power to do good or evil is thrown into sharp relief by her words – and with it, my huge responsibility. I also see his position. When Jack does explode with frustration, instead of snapping, I charm away his bad temper. I find this supremely difficult. When he swears, I say, "Please don't speak like that." I don't stoop to a squabble. I even – as Sbuttoni advises "stand there, as if you are a gorilla over him" – to indicate on important issues that while he is as powerful as me, I am in charge. But mostly I try to put my ego aside and see it his way. When I help him with an essay, he asks: "Were you the cleverest person at English in your year at university?"
"God, no!" I say. "There were a lot of naturally brilliant people there. I just tried hard."
He says, "I think it's far better to try hard and do well, than to be clever and not try."
"You're right, Jack," I say. "Thank you," and he beams.
I feel a great rush of love. Because he's so eloquent, it's easy to mistake his for an adult mind, to roar, "Oh, grow up!" when he plays the fool. I am a difficult parent: disorganised, sarcastic and unfair. Yet he loves me, as I do him, with painful, primal ferocity. I see I just had to learn to try harder.
Names have been changed
What to do if you feel you can't love your child properly
Is it common not to like your child? It's difficult to know as it's such a taboo subject that people won't readily admit to it. We are supposed to love our children from the minute they are born, like magic, and if that doesn't happen you can feel you are stumbling from the start.
While it's perfectly normal to find your child annoying occasionally, or dislike aspects of him or her, not liking them long term can usually be traced back to a reason, or sometimes several. There might have been a rupture in the bonding process. Sometimes children remind the parent of parts of themselves that they don't like. Or they find it hard to cope with a child's extreme vulnerability.
How you were parented can also have an impact: if you had a really difficult relationship with your mother (or father if you are a man), it can be really difficult to know how to be a good version of a mother/father yourself.
What is damaging for children is if they can't get back to a place where they know the parent really does love them — in other words, if there's never a time at which the child has a secure base. There has to be trust on the part of the child that underneath it all, he or she is loved.
Family therapy can really help if things are cyclical because unless someone steps in to change the patterns — how parent relates to child and vice versa — it just perpetuates. The sooner you get help, the better: younger children are more able to adapt to changes in their parents. Ryan Lowe is a consultant child, adolescent and family therapist