I Love My Son, But I'm Not Sure The Feeling Is Mutual
By: Joy Youell
Updated January 27, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Cessel Boyd
We all have those moments, during different stages of our child's lives, when we feel like maybe our child doesn't love us. With younger children, sometimes they generally prefer one parent over the other, at least for a little while. It can be heartbreaking, but there's nothing you can do other than weather the storm and wait for the phase to be over. Sometimes, it can last years. Eventually, the child will come around to realizing that both parents love the child just as much as the child loves them.
But what if it isn't just a phase? What if you have the strong sense that your child honestly doesn't love you? This can mean different things at different ages. With the very young, they may be trying on a new persona to figure out how the world works. With teenagers, it may be a way of their asking for help without coming right out and doing so. And with adults, it may just be that they need their space for a bit after arguing with you.
Either way, it can be heartbreaking to hear our children say, "I don't love you" or "I hate you." Worse still is when you say, "I love you," and they don't say anything at all. What are they thinking at that moment? Are they simply afraid to say it? Or, do they honestly not feel any love for you in return?
Not Feeling the Toddler Love
It's common to think your child doesn't love you when they're young or when they're a teenager. Toddler development usually includes phases of favoring one parent, and the amount of time spent with a child will not determine which parent they prefer. This can feel unfair, but it's a temporary phase that will not last forever.
Even though it's temporary, the parent who isn't preferred may worry about their parenting. If you're in this position, it's important to know that it doesn't mean you're a bad parent. Sometimes children gravitate toward the more "fun" parent or the one who doesn't discipline them as much, even though they need to be disciplined. At other times, children don't have a strong reason for their preference. Maybe they just like Daddy's scent or the way Mommy reads a book. Children are fickle and, while it's easy to wonder about their actions and motives, parents should refrain from doing so in this case.
It's Only Temporary
The good news is that this is just a phase that will end. Many moms report feeling devastated when their children either ignore them or flat-out tell them that they don't love them. Even if a child reacts negatively to not getting what they want, they will soon be back to their happy, bouncy selves. Some parents have even reported that after the phase was over, their child's love for them was stronger than ever, and they never hit an icy patch again. Your situation may be similar, or the dynamic may be completely different. Regardless, having strong mental health is an important part of parenting, so you don't rely on your child's affection for your sense of self.
What happens when your child feels like you don't love them? Some children will make an accusation like this as a form of manipulation. Parents may begin to question where they could have possibly gone wrong to make a child feel this way. If your love for your child has never wavered, why do they stiffen up when you go in for a hug? Every time it happens, your heart probably breaks into a million pieces.
There are multiple phases of development in which a child's affections may change. We can do everything in the world to show our children that we love them, but at times their processing or hormones may be too distracting to accept that affection. During seasons of adolescent frustrations, for instance, control issues tend to surface. When a teen feels out of control in some areas of their lives, they may feel safe enough to unleash aggression on their parents. This can lead to unfair and unfounded accusations.
Tuning in to Your Child
Sometimes it isn't about what your child says but instead what your child isn't saying. Children from toddlers to adolescents rely on nonverbal communication. Whether they lack the right vocabulary or the emotional bandwidth to communicate verbally, it's important to tune in to the ways your child is communicating. From crossing their arms to balling their fists, there are many ways to identify anger before it comes out of their mouths. If your child is telling you that they don't love you, they may be using the only weapon they have to hurt you. Why would your child feel the need to do that? Your child may be struggling with anger management.
Yelling is cathartic for the person who's angry. As a parent, it's important to monitor your own communication, so it's timely and reflects self-control. If you're tempted to yell or you find your children yelling often, you may want to discuss this with a mental health professional.
As hard as it can be to keep strong emotions in check, modeling self-control will ensure that your child feels secure enough to communicate with you when they are ready. It also creates a home environment where acceptance and non-judgmental attitudes are the default, setting a healthy example for your child. Calm and measured communication can help you reach an emotionally distant child.
Communicating With Adult Children
As our children get older, we need to remember that it's natural and perfectly okay for them to want distance from us sometimes. They must find their place in the world as an individual and an adult, not as the child they have been.
Consider your own life. While you were growing up, the things that happened to you personally were far more important to you than the things that were happening to your parents. From time to time, it may take them a while to return a phone call, text, or email, but – and this is especially true for college kids – that doesn't mean they don't love you. Instead, they probably have a lot going on. This is true even for the kids who were inseparable from their parents earlier in life.
When children grow up, some parents feel jealous of or threatened by their child's partner. While it can hurt to be demoted to second place, this is perfectly natural. It's important to remember that your child choose this person. If you condemn your child's choice, you are showing a lack of respect and trust for the choices they make as an adult.
It's particularly important not to infantilize your adult child by treating them as though they are younger than they are. This is part of transitioning your relationship with them as they enter adulthood, a transition that many parents find challenging. Independence and even complete withdrawal for a season may be required at this time. If you are a safe and welcome place for them, they will return to you when they're ready.
If you notice that a legitimate estrangement is developing, then you must be proactive and initiate a conversation with your child. Tell your child that you sense a rift is growing and that you would like to do what you can to repair it. Be honest. Let your child know that you love them and that you don't want anything to get in the way of having an open, honest, and healthy relationship with them.
Are you and your child struggling to form or maintain a close connection? You may want to contact an in-person or online counselor who can provide you with ideas and support. A counselor can offer a safe space for you and your child to explore what you’ve both been experiencing without judgment.
How BetterHelp Can Support You
If you’re considering online therapy for you, your child, or for the both of you, our licensed counselors atBetterHelp have years of experience helping children grow into healthy adults and helping parents communicate with their children. You can meet with one of our counselors when it’s most convenient for you and in the comfort of your own home. Read below for reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
"I've been using BetterHelp for a while now and have really enjoyed working with Rachel. I'm a mom to a young child and having the ability to message her or schedule live sessions is a game changer. She is very kind and attentive to my feelings and concerns and gives me helpful insight. I have genuinely appreciated her support and benefited greatly from spending time working with her."
"Dr. Broz had made a significant impact on my life. After just one session with her I was able to get more sleep and handle issues with my husband and young kids better. She's empathic and very easy to talk to. I would recommend her to anyone looking for help with stress, sleep issues, anger or relationship advice. Thanks, Sandra, for everything you do for me and all your patients."
Parents love their children unconditionally. Sometimes a child may not return that love temporarily, so it's important not to rely on your child's affection to feel complete. At these times, it's okay to seek help from a licensed counselor if you need support. Your child will almost always come back to you, ready to resume a loving relationship. In the meantime, you can focus on being healthy, joyful, and open to their return. Take the first step now.
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