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Behaving — Parent-Child Relational Problem

Parent-Child Relational Problem

Mom sitting on couch reasoning with her son.

Marcy Willard


Last modified 19 Oct 2023

Published 31 Mar 2022

What is a Parent-Child Relational Problem?

A parent-child relational problem is a pattern of miscommunication, discipline challenges, and difficulties getting along with one another to the point of significant distress. [1,2]

My story: As a child psychologist, I was once faced head-on with this term when my own son was diagnosed. Yes, I understand the irony of that situation. 

My own child was in the hospital. We had experienced a multitude of challenges and some trauma that led up to these difficult days. I ordered the report from the clinical team to be sent to my email for our records.

Looking frantically over the 85-page psych report and the list of mental health diagnoses, I found this one in the mix, “parent-child relational problem.” I stared at it and read over it several times. Then I thought, what I think every parent thinks at some point, “Am I a bad mom?” 

To answer this and to help you answer that question that may also be looming in your head, let’s look at what a parent-child relational problem is and what you can do about it.

Symptoms of a Parent-Child Relational Problem

  • Refusals: Your child doesn’t do what you say. The more you say, the less they follow your guidance. You are often upset and stressed over this situation
  • Defiance: Your child says “no” or purposely does the opposite of what you ask. As a result, there is unrest and upset in your family. Learn how to parent a teenager with emotional issues or defiance. Sign up today
  • Ignoring instructions: Your child ignores your requests and simply saunters off to do their own thing. You get frustrated by this and resort to nagging and threatening them with consequences if they don’t comply
  • Disappointing grades: Your child’s grades are not as good as you hoped they would be. You are frustrated by your child’s unwillingness to achieve their potential
  • Arguing: Your child seems to argue with everything you say. You feel like a broken record, as you repeat yourself to no avail
  • Acting irresponsibly: Your child is not holding up their responsibilities around the house or at school. You are annoyed that they will not do basic things that would lead to a brighter future
  • Irritable: Your child seems to be mad all the time. They are huffing and puffing around after being asked to do the smallest chore. You get so frustrated that you end up yelling at them or doing the chore yourself 
  • Risky behaviors: Your child engages in behaviors that you say, “you would never do.” Your child may be getting in trouble at school or doing illegal activities. You find yourself worrying incessantly about your child’s future
  • Personality differences: Your child is so stubborn and so different from you. You are ambitious and your child seems lackadaisical. You are athletic and your child hates sports. You are an academic and your child doesn’t care about school. You are scratching your head and thinking, “I cannot relate to this kid at all”

My story: I remember when my older son was a toddler and I was part of a mom’s group. There was one mom who was really concerned when her daughter was a baby about having healthy habits as she grows up. She did not want her child watching TV or eating too many sweets. It was funny when her four-year-old’s favorite things were “treats and show.”

I was in graduate school at the time and studying the importance of social skills. Meanwhile, my son was snatching toys from other kids and constantly biting them. He used to frequently say, to my horror, “I bite!” Indeed, he did.

Fast forward to today, parents: those two kids are now 18, off to college, and doing just fine. What do we learn from this little example? Your kids aren’t here to be who you want them to be. They are here to be themselves. Your desire to make them someone different is the cause of your suffering.

In this video, Dr. Marcy Willard reminds you not to take it personally when your child is upset.

Causes of a Parent-Child Relational Problem

Although there can be a wide variety of reasons why there are problems in the relationship between a parent and their child, we are going to assume some circumstances to keep this simple. In this piece, I assume you love your child very much and are doing the best you can. This is why you are reading the article in the first place. 

The first reason that there is often a relational problem with your child is that as a parent you likely blame yourself for everything that happens. You feel terrible when your child faces certain challenges. You even see their missteps as a reflection on you and your parenting. 

To address this parent blame problem we are going to identify five things that can happen to your child that are not your fault. 

Five parent-child relational problems that are not your fault

  1. ACEs: Environmental failures, traumas, and cultural conditions. Yes, the literature shows that ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) have a significant impact on our functioning and that of our kids. Keep in mind that not all ACEs are preventable. A great example of a non-preventable ACE would be the pandemic. It doesn’t matter to the pandemic if you are a nice person, a good parent, or if you want the best for your child. The pandemic comes along and has an effect on our child’s mental health, like it or not. [3] Other types of ACEs that you can’t do anything about include wars going on in your community or around the world, school shootings, the death of a loved one, divorce, relocation, natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes, and more. You did not cause those events, and they will impact your child’s well-being. You are raising your child in an environmental context that is largely outside of your control. 
  1. Life events: It seems somewhat ridiculous to blame yourself for the effects of a tornado or a hurricane on your family’s life. Of course, that is not your fault. But the parental-blame game gets a whole bunch worse. As parents, we blame ourselves for literally everything that happens. We feel bad when our child is left out of a birthday party, thinking that we should have either helped our kid identify better friends, or taught better social skills. 
  2. Developmental disabilities: As a psychologist, I have seen this more times than I can count. A mother of a child with autism or ADHD comes into my office completely mortified. Their child has done something highly inappropriate like disrobing in front of other kids, throwing a tantrum instead of coming to the rug at storytime, or making an obscene gesture at the lunch table. Parents, this is not your fault. Even the best parents in the world are going to struggle some when their child has a developmental disability or mental health disorder. Want to learn how to better parent a child with ADHD or autism? Sign up for a Cadey course taught by child psychologists in just two minutes a day.
  3. Developmental trauma & heartbreak: Research continues to show that most people, including our kids, have something called ‘developmental trauma.’ This does not mean that you came from a bad home or that you are a bad parent. What it does mean is that when a child feels a sense of ongoing distress or threat to the self, unhealthy coping patterns may emerge. As you well know, people can be resilient in amazingly hard circumstances so no trauma is a life sentence to misery. However, as a parent, it is helpful to be aware of these patterns and how they may show up in your household. Everyone may have negative experiences in childhood that can be the source of ongoing mental health challenges. As you read this article, think about your own experiences as a child and ask yourself if you might have some of these patterns of your own. If you do, that’s okay. The key is learning how to identify what is happening and begin to learn new coping strategies and ways to connect with others. 
  4. Your child’s behavior – not your fault: Yes, I said it. You are not in control of your child’s behaviors. Unfortunately, you have probably been told something to the contrary 1,000 times. We live in a world where people believe that we should be able to control our kids. You run out of the grocery store after your child throws a fit in the candy aisle. You stand in horror as your preschool child takes the other child’s toy and pushes him on the ground. You fear the arrival of your inlaws as you imagine all the snarky behavior your child will demonstrate. 

My story: when my younger son was a toddler, all of my in-laws came into town to visit. He was asleep up in his room when they arrived, and I woke him up for the event we were about to attend. Of course, I put him in the cute little outfit with the matching sweater and khaki pants. I then take him downstairs to get a snack at the table, and he is quite tired and irritable.

My husband’s aunt walks up to him and says, “I like your sweater.” Of course, I am terrified, thinking, “Oh, no. What is he going to say?” Then it happens. He looks at her and says, “Stupid, I don’t care.” Fortunately, the aunt was a good sport and thought it was hilarious. We can all laugh about it now.

Five myths about parent-child relational problems

Although a parent-child relational problem does not at all mean you are a bad parent, you are not off the hook. A parent-child relationship is exactly that: a relationship with you and your child. Given that fact alone, it stands to reason that you are playing a role in the relationship that is unfolding.

In this section, we will identify five myths that if you buy into them, will cause a relationship problem with your child. 

Your child has to get good grades for you to be okay. This is a hard concept for parents to adopt. Parents feel justified in being disappointed and angry about their child’s grades. 

The problem here is that the main reason you probably want your child to get good grades is you are predicting the future. You imagine that good grades will be the key to unlocking entrance to the best colleges, which will then lead to a well-paid and rewarding career. 

Parents, we have all been sold a bag of goods on this one. Of course, good grades might be a precursor to a better life. But, what do you really want over the long run? You really want your child to be happy. 

Does getting good grades mean that your child will be happy? Of course not. This is a particularly ridiculous assertion when we talk about grades in elementary and middle school. Do we really believe that a few bad grades in 5th-grade science and math will have anything to do with how they turn out in life? Spoiler alert: it won’t. I would venture a guess that no one will ever look at your child’s elementary school grades. 

If your child gets good grades, that’s great. If they don’t, is it really worth it for you to throw a fit? If you yell at your child and emphatically express your disappointment, will they shape up and get better grades? Probably not. Yes, you can and should show up to help your child when they are struggling in school. It is okay to hold them accountable for doing schoolwork and showing up on time. However, there is no reason to assume that your expressed disappointment in your child’s grades will lead to any improvements whatsoever. 

Your child needs to make good decisions for you to be okay. As parents, we all would just love for our kids to be on the straight-and-narrow path and make very few mistakes. Okay, we know that no one makes good choices all the time, but we just really wish our kids would do the right thing, like always. We are shocked to see that our child does not have their priorities straight. We look on in disbelief when our kids leave a melting ice cream cone on the carpet. We expect them to be grateful every day for all the privileges they have that we never did. 

The problem with this argument is that you are expecting your child to be something they are not. You might then say, “well my expectations aren’t particularly high. I just want them to get decent grades and make their bed in the morning. Is that too much to ask?” Maybe not, but your child is lacking two big assets when making these decisions in life. 

First, your child’s brain is not yet developed in terms of executive functions, decision making, judgment, and planning. Most experts say that this part of the brain does not mature until your child is 23 years old. 

Secondly, your child lacks the experience to see all the consequences of their actions. They will stumble and fall, through many trials in life. This is normal. Your job is to stand by your child; it is not to prevent them from making any mistakes.

Your child needs to change their attitude for your family to have peace. This is another myth that I hear all the time as a psychologist. Parents relent that everything would be fine, ‘if only’ my child would ‘just have a good attitude.’ From a distance, that idea is sensible. As a reasonable parent, you see this one kid wreaking havoc on your home and just wish that they would change their behavior so that all would be well.

The problem with this belief is two-fold. 

First, your child may not change their attitude any time soon. Even with the best behavioral therapists engaged and most amazing parents, human behavior does not improve instantly. All people, yourself included, will take time to improve our ways of thinking, functioning, and behaving. In the best conditions, behavior improvement is not in a straight line. As psychologists, when we carefully track a child’s behaviors, it does not look like a line at all. Instead, it looks like a stock chart with a lot of ups and downs but an overall positive trend that is up and to the right. 

Second, even if your child’s behavior starts to improve, you won’t necessarily find peace in your home. This might be a bitter pill but please bear with me on this. One of the main sources of our own suffering is within us. As parents, we expect our kids to do all kinds of things so that we won’t worry about them. We don’t say it outloud but on some level we all believe that if our kids do well, we will be happy. Parents, do not expect your child to make you happy. 

In his hallmark books and lectures, Michael Singer, teaches about the importance of surrender. This often misunderstood concept does NOT mean that parents are supposed to just let their children do whatever they want. [4]

“This concept of surrender is about experiencing what is happening without taking it personally. Your child’s behaviors are not about you. If your child does something wrong, that is not your fault. If your child does something great, you get no credit for that either.”

It is extremely hard to accept that fact but it is true. As a parent, you are there to support and guide your child, not to make their decisions for them. 

If my child tries drugs or alcohol, all is lost. This is another very hard concept for a parent to swallow. Yes, as parents, it is perfectly good to set firm boundaries around substances. No, it is not okay for your child to do drugs – ever. I get it. As parents, it is important to take action when your child is in trouble. See Addiction in Teens for more on how to handle this issue in your home. 

However, there are two problems with the belief that all is lost if your child uses drugs or alcohol. 

First, they might do it anyway. Parents, did you go to high school or college? Did you ever see anyone drinking or using drugs? You probably did. In our culture, alcohol is everywhere. By the time your child reaches adulthood they will have seen over a billion ads for alcohol. Then, when our kids’ experiment, we see it as a moral issue. Yes, any signs of addiction you will need to take action on your part. However, if your child does use substances, it is not that they have bad morals or that their future is ruined.

Second, as with any bad decision that your child makes, you cannot make your own happiness contingent on their behaviors. This may be the most difficult task of parenting: not making it about us. 

My story: as a parent who had already lost my brother to addiction, I hoped against hope that my kids would never go near substances. I did the right things in drawing boundaries and taking a hard line about all substances.

What happened? They did it anyway. As parents, we did take serious action to get help. There is nothing wrong with that. What did I learn, though? Just like any other decision that my boys made, the onus of my own well-being and happiness is still on me.

My job is to take action but not to run around like a maniac, freaking out, and insisting that everything has to work out a certain way. Instead, my job is to find happiness and calm within myself, no matter what decisions my kids make.

I just want my child to be happy. This is the final alluring myth that all parents have been sold. When someone asks us what we really want, we instantly respond that we just want their happiness. 

The problem with this myth is this: are you happy all the time? You may have a good life, filled with joy, celebration, success, productivity, and fun. But will you actually ‘be happy’ as your constant state of being? Of course not. So, why do we expect our kids to do that? Your kid will not be happy all the time, no matter what you do.

What to Do About a Parent-Child Relational Problem

Now you may be wondering, if I can’t make my child happy and they can’t make me happy, what can I do? 

“What do we have left as parents after we strip all of that away? Fortunately, now you have just taken out the garbage in your relationship. What is left now is your clean house full of the good stuff – your love.”

Are we just absolving ourselves of all agency and responsibility? Definitely not. Here is a list of steps you can take to improve your relationship with your child that can make a significant difference in your whole family’s life if you do them consistently. 

DO keep it positive: Remember that your relationship with your child is their most important asset in life. One day, your child may drive off into the sunset. Your child may get taller than you. Your child might make more money than you. Your child may move away. What do you both have left in the end? Your relationship. If you are willing to focus on listening to and enjoying your child, rather than worrying about their future, the results will be better no matter what happens.

DO be here now: Take time each day to appreciate the good events that happened. If you have a moment in the sunshine at the park with your child, drink it in. Allow your family to have unencumbered and uninterrupted moments of joy. Each day that you enjoy with your child is a gift to you both.

DO have boundaries: Sometimes parents who hear about keeping it positive and ‘not personal’ get confused. They think that this means to let your child run wild. This is not at all the case. The way to really have an impact on your child’s behavior is to change your own behavior. 

As a parent, you have access to almost all the reinforcement. Who pays for those snacks? Who buys those toys? Who pays that cell phone bill? Who drives the kids to the birthday party? You do. Make rewards contingent on good behavior. As psychologists, we notice that holding boundaries is the most often misunderstood concept. If you do nothing else besides rewarding the behaviors you want to see and absolutely refusing to reward the behaviors you don’t want to see, you have done your job.

DON’T make threats: In terms of discipline, about the worst thing you can do is threaten a punishment and not follow through. Take a step back, and only give an instruction you are prepared to enforce. If you are tired and don’t feel like a battle, don’t ask. Provide instructions that your child is likely to follow. Once you gain momentum with small tasks, your child is more likely to comply with larger tasks.

DO get curious: If your child is throwing a fit, listen and watch what is happening. What is actually wrong? Find out if your child is having trouble in school or with a friend. Just like you, your child has bad days, tough times, and honest reasons to be upset. If you take a minute to figure out what is going on, you can approach your child with understanding and care. In that context, whatever happens, it will go better than it would otherwise.

DON’T talk so much: As you ask your child to do tasks, it is important not to lecture or nag them. Break things into manageable steps, one at a time. Say, “please get the sheets from the laundry” rather than, “fold the laundry and put it away.” Say “please hang up your backpack” rather than “clean up this mess.”

DON’T take it personally: Parents, you are dealing with a child here. This is not about you. If your child says something rude during a meltdown, let it go for now. If your child makes a scene at the store, ignore people who look at you with judging eyes. You didn’t tell your child to throw that fit. Just be present for your child and do your best. Your best is all you can do. 

When to Seek Help for a Parent-Child Relational Problem

Conscious parenting: Before you panic and go get 10 therapists, make sure you have addressed your own parenting style. A new understanding of parenting has emerged in the work by psychologist and parenting expert Shefali Tsabary. In her hallmark book, ‘The Awakened Family,’ she writes, [5-6]

“We all have the capacity to raise children who are highly resilient and emotionally connected. However, many of us are unable to because we are blinded by modern misconceptions of parenting and our own inner limitations.” 

As you have read repeatedly in this article, you are part of the equation in the parenting relationship. If you show up healthy and whole to the discussion, your child is likely to respond much better. If you mess up, apologize and get over it. Each time you approach your child with a concern, focus on your guidance and support, not on instant compliance from your child. If you are willing to stand by your child during the tough times, they are more likely to come to you when they need you most.

Normal developmental struggles: Through the course of development, typical kids will have times where they are just plain difficult. They huff and puff around the house, refusing to do their part. They throw tantrums at the smallest request. These moments are generally not a time to worry. 

You will want to stay calm, consistent, and supportive while maintaining the rules and boundaries. Although every child is different; and children who are Gifted or have ADHD can be especially challenging in this regard, generally these lapses in good behavior are temporary and survivable. Stay positive and watch closely for the behaviors to improve as your child matures.

Persistent irritability or angry outbursts: If your child’s behavior is continuously leaning toward the negative, it may be time to get help. You will want to watch your child. Sometimes these behaviors are a sign that your child is in emotional distress. If your child is constantly irritable, it may be time to seek the help of a therapist or counselor. Sometimes your child may be using  ‘cognitive distortions’ such as: seeing everything in black and white, taking everything personally, or assuming the worst in people. Most therapists are trained in helping children learn more healthy thinking patterns.

Unsafe behaviors: If you are concerned about extreme, dangerous, or aggressive behaviors, it is time to get help. It is not typical for even a kindergarten-aged child to be consistently aggressive to peers or parents. Occasional sibling rivalry, yes. But, lots of aggression in your school-age child or teenager is cause for concern. 

You can consult with an Applied Behavior Analyst (ABA) or licensed therapist for support. Sometimes, a simple behavior plan can be implemented at home. Other times, you and your child will need to learn the principles of behavior modification to improve your relationship and potential for a good outcome.

Further Resources on Parent-Child Relational Problems

  • Parenting coach or therapist for yourself: to help you come into the parenting relationship with a fresh and healthy perspective. This support is offered here at (click on Contact Us, or do the Cadey app assessment to learn more).
  • Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat emotional symptoms and help with social skills training, planning and organization
  • ABA therapist: to treat behavior; or to conduct an analytical Functional Analysis of the behavior that can help guide treatment
  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment to look at symptoms in mental health or behavioral context

Similar Conditions to Parent-Child Relational Problems

  • Attention problems: difficulty with attention or distractibility will often lead to challenges with behavior and relationships at home 
  • Perseverating: challenges changing tasks due to excessive focus on a certain topic can impact a child’s ability to get along with others in the home 
  • Depression: underlying feelings of depression can cause a child to be forgetful or distracted which may result in non-compliance or relationship problems
  • Attachment: a history of abuse or exposure to inappropriate behavior may cause a child to be spacey, disconnected, or angry, which may lead to behavior problems
  • Conduct problems: deliberate rule or law-breaking behavior may be related to other behavior or relationship problems 
  • Verbal comprehension: misunderstanding of directions may lead to behavior issues. It is important to make sure your child understands the instructions they are expected to follow 

References on Parent-Child Relational Problems

[1] PsychDB. (November, 2021) V-Codes (DSM-5) and Z-Codes (ICD-10) 

[2] American Psychiatric Association (APA) (Retrieved March, 2022). DSM-5-TR: Frequently Asked Questions

[3] NPR: Shots, Health News from NPR. Take The ACE Quiz — And Learn What It Does And Doesn’t Mean

[4] Michael Singer (2015) The Surrender Experiment. 

[5] Shefali Tsabary Ph.D (2016) The Awakened Family: A Revolution in Parenting

[6] Shefali Tsbary Ph.D. (2010) The Conscious Parent. Transforming ourselves, Empowering Our Children. 

Other book resources for parent-child relational problems 

Greene, Ross W. (2001). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children.

Purvis, Karyn B., & Cross, David R., & Sunshine, Wendy Lyons (2007). The connected child: Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family.

Seigel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2014). No drama-discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind.