When you and your child are different

When you and your child are different (Duston Todd, Getty Images / October 16, 2012)

"If your child says, 'In order to do my homework I need to lie on the floor with headphones and a bag of chips and the TV on in the background, rather than panic because that would never work for you, say, 'I'll give you three days to prove that works.' If the homework is getting done properly and turned in on time, they proved it can. If not, you get to say, 'Nice try.'"

It releases the parents, Tobias says, from trying to constantly determine and meet their child's needs when the needs are nothing like their own.

"It holds the child accountable and helps him figure out his own strengths and how to use them."

And emphasize your child's strengths as often as possible — to yourself and to your child.

"We're a society that's constantly focusing on deficits," says Tobias. "We start screening for the markers of depression way before we ask 'What makes you happy?' Kids get to school and are immediately tested for deficiencies even before we ask what they do well.

"What if we said, 'You're the most restless, moving, high-energy kid I've ever seen. How can we use that to help you solve your math homework?' Then as they get older they know how to figure out what works for them."

And wouldn't that be a great gift to give a child?

"Sometimes," says Tobias, "the world will do exactly what you want it to. Hardly ever, though. When you get to a place that's not accommodating you, you can choose to quit, or, knowing yourself, go down that checklist in your mind of your strengths and what you need and then you choose how to conquer it."

Worthy advice, it seems, for both children and their parents.


The risk of pushing too hard

Sending your child the message that you wish they were a different person can have immediate and long-term consequences, says Margret Nickels, director of Erikson Institute's Center for Children and Families.

"When we push them too hard, it can be more about our needs than what they're needing," Nickels says. "We have to constantly sort out, 'Is this so that I feel better about myself, or is this about what my child needs or what's best for my child?'

"A lot of pushing comes out of a sense of protection and well intentions, but we give kids the message, 'There's something about you that's hard for us to accept.'"

Children who feel steered in an uncomfortable direction do one of two things, Nickels says.

"They will either rebel, so you will get a lot of conflict and fighting back and anger," she says. "Because the message you're sending is, 'I'm disappointed in you and I don't know what to do with you and something about you is not right."

Or they'll internalize a sense of failure.

"Your child will try to adjust to your ideas of who he or she should be and will turn very anxious or depressed about not living up to your standards," she says. "This is actually the greater risk."

— H.S.