Whether we are a parent, teacher, grandparent, caregiver, or guardian, most adults have a close relationship with a child at some point.
Children can be exemplars of selfless love, compassion, and joy. They can also be sullen, challenging, and unforgiving – guilty of the same failings as the adults who love them.
It is not socially acceptable for an adult to say that they dislike a child. We complain about other adults and gossip about their grown-up shortcomings, but expressed dissatisfaction with a child comes across, perhaps rightfully so, as bullying.
However, the ugly truth is that some adult-child relationships can be as frustrating and unfulfilling as a loveless marriage.
Dr. John Gottman studied married couples for over four decades and was able to predict divorce based on communication patterns that couples display. His work led to multiple models to help reduce behaviors that can lead to relationship instability.
Although we cannot divorce the children in our lives, much of Gottman’s research can be applied toward improving adult-child relationships.
Gottman’s concept of sentiment override consists of two categories: negative sentiment override (NSO) and positive sentiment override (PSO).
Negative sentiment override occurs when one or both persons in the relationship perceive most, if not all, of their interactions with a negative lens. Actions or statements by one person, even if completely neutral in nature, are experienced negatively by the other party.
NSO is reflected in how the dyad thinks of each other as well. A child experiencing NSO with their teacher will remember the times that the teacher ignored them, gave them a bad grade, or didn’t explain a concept to the child’s satisfaction. In short, the child dislikes the teacher and then interprets neutral, or even positive, interactions with that teacher through a negative lens.
Positive sentiment override is the goal of healthy relationships. Dyads operating in PSO give each other “the benefit of the doubt” and tend to perceive that the other person operates with positive intent. Even negative situations are not seen as negatively for a couple experiencing PSO.
Imagine a mother who is working diligently in her home office and fails to notice that her daughter has returned home from school. In PSO, the daughter will say to herself, “Wow. Mom must be having a very busy day. I’m going to catch up with her a little later.” The daughter does not take the situation personally.
Both PSO and NSO contribute to self-fulfilling prophesies in relationships. If I view my child as irresponsible, I will inevitably treat them as such. In turn, my child will likely behave even more irresponsibly, thus fulfilling my predictions of them. I feel justified in my opinions of them, and the cycle continues.
Breaking a Cycle of Negativity in an Adult-Child Relationship
Relationships require effort. We adults acknowledge that fact readily when it comes to our spouses, partners, coworkers, and friendships. However, how often do we see our one-to-one relationships with children as worthy targets of improved communication, conflict resolution, and efforts toward building more positive perspectives of each other?
Some of Gottman’s recommendations for marriage enhancement can help address these needs in adult-child dyads.
First, be open to mutual influence. Allow the child’s perspective of the relationship to influence or even change your mind about what is going right or wrong. Don’t dismiss the child’s perceptions and do apologize where necessary.
Ask the child to hear you out on your perceptions of the relationship. Model the communication behavior you want them to give back to you.
The purpose of these conversations is to address the NSO that exists in the relationship and, with effort, redefine the relationship positively.
Second, express fondness for each other. You can even make it into a game where you write nice things about each other on a piece of paper and trade papers. Or start a daily ritual where each person says three nice things about the other. Practices like these lead to PSO.
Third, when the child expresses difficult emotions, respond to what Gottman calls their “bids” for attention. Ask questions and provide safe space for them to communicate what they feel, without telling them how they should feel. Help the child label their emotions and understand acceptable ways to vent them.
Relationships can be tricky, but humans are built to be connected to each other. Despite the power differentials that exist in many adult-child dyads, the relationship itself is worthy of the attention and care we give our adult friendships and partnerships.
Melissa Gratias, Ph.D., is an international speaker, productivity coach, blogger, and author. For more than 20 years, Dr. Gratias has improved productivity for multinational companies and individual entrepreneurs. She has self-published six ebooks on productivity, traditionally published one illustrated children’s storybook on life balance, and self-published a storybook called Captain Corona and the 19 COVID Warriors that was featured on People.com. Dr. Gratias has appeared on the Hallmark Channel, in Fast Company, on Inc.com, in Real Simple magazine, and in numerous other media outlets.