Tough Dads and Sensitive Kids
This post is a condensed summary of our podcast about the relationship between tough dads and sensitive kids. To listen to the full episode scroll to the bottom of the page or find us on all of the major streaming services.
Hello and welcome, this post is all about the relationship between tough dads and sensitive kids. As you can probably imagine I see a LOT of very sensitive kids in my office. When I say sensitive, I mean both emotionally sensitive and sensitive to sensory things like lights and noises. I also see a lot of “tough Dads” and by that I mean dads who have high standards, firm boundaries and limited patience for emotions and behaviors that they don’t like.
This dynamic can be very difficult particularly for moms who feel caught in the middle. I get asked a lot about how to navigate these personalities and about parenting a sensitive child while we are working on increasing their emotion regulation and frustration tolerance. I want to use this post to go through the things I usually relay to parents about this dynamic AND the things that I am still in the process of learning myself!
Now full disclosure, my area of expertise is in neurological development not parenting and if having my own child has taught me anything its that I know nothing about parenting! If you and your spouse are struggling with parenting dynamics I highly recommend working with a parenting coach or therapist to help with the specifics and details of your family dynamic.
Here are my two favorite resources for parenting and relationship help:
In order to understand this dynamic we need to look at the goals of parenting and the different roles of mothers and fathers. Now in this post I am going to talk a lot about gender differences, both differences in personality and in parenting roles. That being said, its worth noting that not all men and women fall perfectly into these gendered categories. Individually speaking, we all have a spectrum of masculine and feminine personality characteristics; there are plenty of couples where mom takes a more disciplinarian role or where dad is more nurturing. For the sake of this post, we are looking at more traditional masculine dads and their relationship with sensitive kids.
So the kind of overarching goal of parenting is to build a relationship with your children that helps them navigate the process of becoming adults. The main idea being that your children don’t need you in the same ways they did when they were young.
There are kind of two sides to this process of maturation. On the one side you have the goal of integrating into the social world. We want our children to be accepted into the world at large and learn how to engage with others in a positive way. We want them to know how to navigate and negotiate social relationships and how to function as a member of the family, of society and the greater social world.
The second side to that is more individually focused. We want our children to develop their own sense of self, to be independent and self-sufficient and have the ability to bring their own unique creativity and individuality to their world; to be able to push back against the mindlessness of the group.
Your personality and personal values as a parent will affect the details and specifics of these two categories, but the overarching categories remain the same, how do I fit in and how to I stand out.
Your role as a parent is going to change drastically as your children age. You can see this mostly clearly early on. When babies are first born they are extremely helpless. I have mentioned this before, but babies are born at a very developmentally early age, much earlier than most mammals. The first 6-9 months after birth is almost an extended fetal period. During this period babies pretty much just have needs not wants. During this stage they need a caregiver that is pretty hyper attuned to them, that meets their needs quickly and is very connected and attached to them. Most of the time this person is going to be mom. This is one of the kind of biological explanations for some of the personality differences between men and women. In general women tend to be more compassionate and agreeable. These characteristics are very helpful for infant care.
Then around 6-9 months of age when babies start to become more mobile this hyper attunement should begin to lift little by little. Children should become less and less dependent on parents to meet their needs. I heard a really good quote the other day that said “good mom’s naturally fail”. This transition can be very hard on mom’s. It requires us to be comfortable with some level of discomfort in our children.
You see this happen beautifully in animals. I spent a lot of years fostering dogs and cats and took a lot of mothers with young litters. In both cats and dogs, when their babies are first born they tend to be very protective and close. A lot of times they are wary of new people around their babies and they spend a lot of time physically near their babies. As the babies get bigger this changes very quickly, particularly for cats.
Mother cats get fed up with their babies pretty quick. By the time the babies are a month old it is not uncommon to see mama hiding from her babies. A few weeks later they’ll start to get real snippy and irritated with the babies and will start pushing them away more.
In general, Dad’s seem to have an easier time with this transition. Dad’s are more likely to have less agreeable personalities, they tend to set firmer boundaries and have less patience. This isn’t true in every family, but defiantly is more common in the more masculine men. This is one of the important roles that Dad’s play, they do a really good job of fostering this transition from dependence to independence. This increases frustration tolerance, makes children more resilant and the exposure to different personalities helps children to be more capable of navigating social situations so they can fit into the world at large. This directly coorelates with self esteem and a host of other positive psychological benefits.
You see tensions arise in this dynamic for a few reasons. Many of the kids I work with are VERY sensitive. I work with a lot of children who have a retained Moro which is the infant version of their fight or flight response. So for these children their stress response is similar to that of a newborn. Most of them overreact in big ways. They tend to be emotionally immature and they may get their feelings hurt very easily. This can be very frustrating for any parent particularly dads who are naturally less patient and sensitive themselves.
I commonly see Mom’s in this situation put a lot of effort into trying to avoid things that trigger their kids. They work hard to prevent and deescalate situations and focus on being very empathetic and patient. These are all wonderful and important qualities to have and can make family life more peaceful and enjoyable, but the problems I see arise when mother’s believe that that is the only way their children should be treated.
This usually happens when Mom’s themselves are more sensitive or anxious and they get stressed out or triggered by their child’s responses. They also may be triggered by their husband’s response to the kids believing that an angry impatient response will be detrimental to their child’s emotional development and their relationship with dad.
Dr. Pysch Mom has a really great blod post and podcast episode about this topic titled “Your Husband is Allowed to Treat Your Kids Differently Than You”.
If we go back to the parenting goal of helping kids answer the questions how do I fit in and how do I stand out, these differences in parenting become very important. Its not just that your husband is allowed to treat the kids differently, you should WANT your husband to treat the kids differently. Kids should have positive, loving attachements with people who have lots of different personalities; and yes this may involve your child getting yelled at, teased or criticized. This helps children have well-rounded personalities, helps prevent them from becoming little narcissists, and helps them learn how to navigate a social world that involves LOTS of different personalities.
I see many moms in this situation who worry a lot about their child’s self-esteem and emotional development. They worry that having a critical, tough dad will be detrimental to their child’s self-esteem. This belief can get exacerbated when you have a highly-sensitive child. Many of the kids I work with have big big emotions. This ranges everywhere from high anxiety and fears, to rage and angry outbursts, to weepy and very emotionally sensitive to everything. These children obviously have big reactions to being told no, to being snapped at and to transitioning through normal every day activities.
Most often when Moms are bringing up this topic to me its because their child is very sensitive to yelling and to someone being mad at them. This is common in the kids I work with. Many of them are very noise sensitive and they tend to be pretty anxious underneath which can make them more sensitive to other people negative emotions.
When Dad gets irritated and snaps at them they have a big reaction and mom worries that we are harming any progress they are making in developing emotional control. Spoiler alert, we aren’t.
Now I am not advocating for more yelling and more conflict. Kids, particularly the ones I am working with usually do better in more peaceful environment. Kids who are in homes where there is a lot of yelling, disrespectful relationships and unresolved marital conflict struggle to make progress with regulating their stress response. The key factor in that being unresolved. Conflict is inevitable in EVERY relationship and every family. Children need to learn that conflict is inevitable and how to respectfully resolve it. This is particularly important for children with big emotions. They need to learn that big feelings don’t ruin relationships.
Often times in these situations well-meaning moms try to “rescue” their child from dad and this creates the problem they are trying to prevent. This undermines Dad’s ability to parent and teaches the child that dad doesn’t know what he is doing and that the child themselves is not emotionally resilient enough to handle a tough situation.
This also undermines the relationship between mom and dad and can lead to long-term marital conflict which definintly DOES have a negative impact on children’s emotional development.
Kids need to know that their parents are on the same team. That does NOT mean that their parents treat them exactly the same, it means that they respect each others parenting differences and don’t undermine one another in front of the kids.
This is easier said that done. Trust me, it is a lesson I am still in the process of learning. Parents are allowed to have different boundaries, different standards and different ways of interacting with their children. If you’re concerned about your child’s relationship with your spouse then encourage them to do things together that they both enjoy. A tough dad with a sensitive kid AND a loving relationship is a beautiful thing. One day, I will do another episode on the roles dads play and how it impacts brain development, but until then know that the tough dads in your life help your child gain independence, build resiliency, navigate the social world confidently, and learn natural consequences.
If you have an overly sensitive child or you’re worried about their emotional maturity check out my podcast episode titled The Startle Reflex and Big Emotions. Or visit my website earlyrootstherapy.com. If your child has an overactive stress response there are a lot of things we can do to help them settle down and develop some emotional maturity.