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The Clash of Unconditional Parents and Conditional Kids

As a parent, do you know Where the Wild Things Are? During elementary school years, they might just be in the imagination of our little ones, but in middle childhood and adolescence, it becomes more apparent that the wild things are not in our imagination, they are actually in our homes!

We like to call these wild things, “conditional creatures” because, developmentally, they have grown into “something” we don’t recognize. Our resistance to this phase has indeed created one of the biggest obstacles in parenting.

Here are a few examples…

“I try to talk to her, but I only get one-word answers.”
“It is only when he needs something that he will offer to help around the house.”
“He is so kind when I say yes and so cruel when I say no.”

The moment our babies arrive, we become selfless and unconditional as parents. The conditional clash that later occurs happens when we want this unconditional love reciprocated by our children.

In our work supporting parents with struggling teens and young adults, we spend time making the distinction between what are the clinically significant behaviors and what are challenging, but age-appropriate behaviors.

One example of the latter is when our kids shift from who they are when they are little, expressing unconditional love, wanting to be around us, to the (temporary) conditional creatures they become starting in middle childhood.

Culturally, it makes sense that they have morphed into a more conditional mindset. Grades, trophies, allowance, social media are all the conditional systems that make up their world.

With their focus becoming internalized, at this age, they start to figure out their boundaries and values. Taking into consideration their limited perspective, the conditions they place on relationships make some sense.

The more that we, as parents, can accept that they are going to be more conditional in how they approach us, the less emotional will be in our reactivity. More importantly, the less personally we take this change, the better chance we have of staying attached and attuned to them during this phase.

Here are some tips for managing and improving this conditional clash:

  • Don’t take it personally
    Understand and accept that this is part of the child-rearing picture so that you are less surprised, upset and reactive when it happens. Remember, they are conditional in all of their relationships during this developmental stage; you are just impacted the most because you remain unconditional in your love.
  • Keep your boundaries, don’t do backflips
    Often, to maintain the feeling of closeness with our conditional creatures, we flex and bend and do backflips in our over giving, hoping that they will, in turn, shift their conditional approaches. Takers will always take so givers need to follow their own boundaries within the giving.
  • Anchor to your values with your wise-mind
    This is a concept we teach our parents over and over. Know what you are and are not willing to give in the relationship. Parent in “wise minded” ways: think through the emotional and the rational, the pros and cons, of situations whenever possible before responding to a child’s request/demand. Take the time you need to get into the wise-mind before addressing a situation so that you are less reactive.
  • Role model reciprocity
    Role model and teach reciprocal relationship and relational consequences. For example, if they treat you with sarcasm and verbal abuse when giving them and their friends a ride home, the next time they ask for a ride, you can say, “you know, I was pretty hurt by how you treated me last time and so this time the answer is no, but we can give it another try tomorrow.”This models healthy reciprocal relationships, suggests cause and effect and shows that recovery is possible and you are willing to try again.

    Another example of teaching reciprocity: if they always ask you to make them a snack, make them a snack sometimes, but other times shift into offering to do it together and even ask them to make a snack for you!

It is important to remember that this is the long game; the efforts you put in now help to set the stage for tools they can better access once they are more developed and mature

Warmly,

Hilary Moses, Jen Murphy and Jen Rapp Sheridan
Solutions Parenting Support


If you are the parents of a child in long-term therapeutic treatment or a wilderness program or you’re a professional working with families who could benefit from our services, please feel free to contact us at (970) 871-1231 or head here for a detailed list of services provided.

*Please note, in the interest of supporting a child’s pronoun of choice, we refer to the child with the pronouns they, them, theirs in this blog.

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