11 Ways Parents Build Resentment In Their Kids Without Realizing It

Experts break down the comments and behaviors from adults that make kids feel resentful.
If not addressed, resentment can cause deeper issues.
skynesher via Getty Images
If not addressed, resentment can cause deeper issues.

We all know what it’s like to feel resentful at times. Some people begin to resent their partners due to an unequal division of labor at home, while others develop resentment at work when their contributions go unrecognized. With kids, it’s not uncommon for resentment to build toward their parents.

“Resentment is a state of anger and unhappiness due to feelings of being treated unfairly,” explained Dr. Gene Beresin, a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor and the executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It tends to grow over time, and the longer it lasts, the harder it is to resolve. It may have a significant negative impact on one’s relationship with parents, including loss of trust, feelings of neglect, rejection or abandonment.”

He noted that these negative feelings and insecure connections with parents often become the model for kids’ expectations of relationships with other adults and peers. Thus, they might see others as potential victimizers and isolate themselves out of fear of unfair treatment and pain.

Or they might be prone to angry outbursts and misbehavior ― or even turn the anger and blame on themselves, leading to chronic guilt and low self-esteem. Fortunately, these outcomes aren’t inevitabilities.

“Resentment is an emotion that only grows in the dark,” said Kristene Geering, a parent educator at the family resource Parent Lab. “When you shine some light and love on the situation, it starts to dissipate. So long as the parent is keeping that relationship with their child in mind, it’s less likely for resentment to grow. But everyone makes mistakes, and every kid is different! I try to hold compassion for both my kids and myself when it comes to these things, and leave room for everyone to learn and grow from their mistakes.”

To encourage this growth, HuffPost asked Beresin, Geering and other experts to break down some parenting behaviors that may contribute to resentment and to share some healthier approaches to consider.

Inconsistent Parenting

“Some parents are inconsistent, at times being overindulgent ― allowing or giving treats, bending the rules, letting infractions go without punishment or at least conversations ― while at other times they are excessively strict,” Beresin said. “Kids need structure and consistency, much like they typically get in school. When they are treated in much of a haphazard way, they learn over time that the world and human behavior is untrustworthy, that they can never know what to expect. And the end result is insecurity and often blaming the parents, especially as they get older.”

Try to evenly apply family rules and consequences over time and with each child.

If a situation like divorce, loss or economic hardship leads to less structure and consistency in the home, talk to your child about it in an age-appropriate way. The same goes for positive disruptions to your consistency.

“Of course, there are times when we as parents are inconsistent — when we allow a late night, extra dessert or even a late movie,” Beresin said. “But this should be earmarked as something special. When it occurs with regular irregularity, it may lend to confusion and resentment.”

Neglecting Promises

“Promising something and then forgetting because you are just too stressed or busy can create resentment,” said Keneisha Sinclair-McBride, a clinical psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. “This is a hard one because you as the adult feel you have a good reason for dropping the ball, but the kid doesn’t see it that way. They had an expectation, got excited and now it’s unfulfilled.”

If you end up in this situation, Sinclair-McBride recommended acknowledging to your kids what happened, validating any hurt feelings and explaining how you plan to make it up to them.

She offered an example of what to say: “I know I said we would have time to go to the park after pickup today but I got stuck in a meeting and completely forgot and now it’s too late. I’m sorry and I understand if you feel disappointed or angry. I still definitely want to take you to the park so you can use the big slide. Would you like to go to the park on Saturday after soccer or Sunday morning?”

Not Explaining The Reasons For Things

“Sometimes kids can think something is unfair and get resentful simply because they don’t like it,” Sinclair-McBride said. “For example, it is totally appropriate that a 6-year-old’s bedtime is earlier than a preteen’s, but the 6-year-old will think it’s unfair. That’s when it’s important to explain that giving everyone what they need does not always mean everyone gets the exact same thing.”

She suggested telling your 6-year-old that you understand they might be disappointed they can’t stay up as late as their older sibling, but explaining that their body needs more rest — and that they get to do things their big sibling can’t do anymore, like having a longer recess at school and getting less homework.

Communicating the nuances behind different decisions can decrease resentment and show mutual respect.

“Many parents believe they don’t have to communicate to their children because they won’t understand,” said clinical psychologist Jenny Yip. “They think it is better to protect them than to tell them the truth. Sometimes that is necessary because of their developmental age or emotional development, but more times than not, when you’re helping your child understand something, you’re also helping them understand how the real world works and the real world does not placate your child’s every whim and need.”

Using Inflexible Language

“One role parents play in building resentment in their children is through the type of words and language they use,” said Ann-Louise Lockhart, a pediatric psychologist and parent coach at A New Day Pediatric Psychology. “Words like ‘should,’ ‘must,’ ‘never,’ ‘always’ and ‘have to’ are too absolute and leave very little wiggle room for flexibility.”

She offered examples like, “You never go to bed on time. Do you realize the kind of day I’ve had?!” or “You should be nice to me. I do a lot for you. You should be thankful. I didn’t get the things I give you from my parents.”

Instead, try to adopt parenting language that builds connection rather than resentment and disconnection. Ask kids questions about how they’re feeling or why they think they’re acting in a certain way to encourage problem-solving and growth.

Imposing Your Own Expectations

“While all kids need expectations for proper, kind, respectful, dutiful and trustworthy behavior, some parents impose their own ideals, aspirations and missions on and for their kids,” Beresin said. “This may mean covertly or overtly demanding excellence in academics, sports, community service, getting into the best college ― even giving them the message about what they should do in life, what their interests and goals should be.”

Parents should aspire to see and value their children for who they are and support them as unique individuals with their own wishes, dreams and interests.

“Imposing your own expectations, perhaps the achievements and goals you wished you had accomplished, only devalues them at a deep level and breeds resentment,” Beresin said. “Many parents do this out of love and hope for their child fulfilling unmet goals we wished we had accomplished. But this stance is bound to backfire.“

Over-Monitoring Everything

“No one likes to be monitored,” Beresin said. “For some parents, overseeing all the details of a child’s life — their academic, athletic, social, digital life — only undermines trust, personal responsibility, learning self-reliance and when to ask for help, autonomy and accountability.”

Resist the temptation to monitor all aspects of your child’s world and focus on offering a healthy degree of structure and the opportunity to fail.

“Then a thoughtful, caring parent can help them understand what they did, where there is a weakness, and address the issue,” Beresin said. “For parenting and for children and teens learning the skills needed for achievement, let’s remember the famous quote from Donald Winnicott, ‘We succeed by our failures.’ We learn the most when we fall. It is no doubt very hard for parents to give our kids enough room to fall. But then our role as a caring supportive figure comes in.”

Invalidating Their Feelings By Focusing On Yours

“Kids feel resentment when parents take the focus off the child who is hurting, expressing a need, or expressing a want,” Lockhart said. “Then the parent internalizes or misinterprets the message in some way.”

She recalled a time she brought her children to the beach and made sure the family did all of their favorite activities.

“At the end, one of the kids wanted to do one more thing and we didn’t have the time,” Lockhart said. “The child said, ‘We never get to do anything fun!’ I was like, ‘What?! Are you kidding me? After everything we’ve just done for you? You should be grateful.’ The good thing is that I was saying this all in my head and almost said it out loud.”

Telling your child they should appreciate all the things you do for them and praise your parenting suggests that their feelings don’t matter.

“You might have a child who is disappointed the day has to end, is probably exhausted from all of the new experiences, is concrete in their thinking and is thinking about the here-and-now, or is self-centered as children are because of their developmental age and maturity,” Lockhart said. “Eventually, this resentment might manifest in children as people-pleasing, irritable mood, constantly asking for reassurance, anxiety about disappointing the parent, or putting themselves last.”

Parents should find healthy outlets to express or work through their own frustration in moments of stress. Otherwise, Lockhart recommended having open conversations about the emotions they’re feeling, while also generally encouraging them to practice gratitude and appreciation for everyday experiences. Parents can model this approach after spending time together by saying things like, “I’m so thankful I got to spend my day off with you.”

Favoring One Child Over Another

“I think a very common scenario is a parent who is perceived as favoring one sibling over another,” Geering said. “It’s important to note that the parent may objectively not be favoring one kid, but what matters is the perception of the child. This is hard for a lot of parents ― they’re not really doing it, so their kid should stop feeling that way, right? Unfortunately, human beings are way more complex than that.”

She gave the example of a parent who gives their younger child a birthday gift that the older child wanted at that age but never received because the family didn’t have enough money at the time.

“For the older child’s birthday, they receive a gift that’s monetarily worth more than the younger child’s, but the older child still feels slighted because their kid-sister got that thing they always wanted,” Geering said. “The actual value of the gifts doesn’t matter — it’s the perceived slight that sticks in the child. This is why regular check-ins are so important. If a parent notices the older child is acting resentful — which might manifest as being mean to the younger sib, acting out against the parents, or talking back, to name a few — it’s time to bring this up in a connecting manner. ‘Hey, kiddo. I noticed you’ve been a little short with your sister. What’s going on?’”

Then, take care to truly listen and say you understand why they might feel that way. Follow up with more regular one-on-one time with them.

“Favoring one sibling over another is common and to some extent natural, especially if you as a parent have things in common with a particular child, such as love of sports, art, or simply get along easier,” Beresin added. “Some kids are challenging and require more effort.”

Still, he noted that it’s never healthy for a parent to show favoritism toward one child over the other. Instead, make an effort to recognize the strengths and weaknesses in each child, even if one needs more attention to help unleash those strengths.

Making Assumptions

“As parents, we need to have frequent conversations with our kids and listen to them,” Beresin said. “It is very important to hear and validate their thoughts and feelings, and not make assumptions we know what they are going through. If we listen, we can have civil conversations about our differences, help them see themselves and the world better, correct errors in their perceptions if needed, and foster a trusting relationship.”

Kids want to feel seen, so show curiosity about their friends, school experience, extracurriculars, feelings, dreams, etc. Even if you’re a busy working parent, make consistent time for your children and be fully present — physically, mentally and emotionally — in those moments.

And when an issue arises, make an effort to hear them out rather than jumping to conclusions or judging them.

“Avoid dismissing them because you think they’re only a child,” Yip said. “We have to respect our children just as we want our children to respect us.”

Not Apologizing

“No doubt sometimes we get it wrong — failing to really know about and address a current problem with our child, punishing them unnecessarily, or not being a good enough role model,” Beresin said. “There is a huge value in apology. It emphasizes taking responsibility for our mistakes, acknowledging we hurt or disappointed another person, and that we are saddened by our own behavior and will try to do it better next time. Absence of apology seriously breeds resentment.”

He emphasized the importance of acknowledging when you fail to practice what you preach, whether you’re texting while driving, getting in a heated argument with your partner rather than resolving conflict, or disregarding other people’s feelings.

“When a young person is admonished for any of these behaviors, it sends mixed messages to the child, teen or young adult,” Beresin said, adding that parents should apologize and take responsibility for their own misbehavior.

“Parenting from this perspective might feel awkward or forced because many parents weren’t raised with parents who parented this way,” Lockhart said. “The way we become more effective parents without accidentally sending messages of resentment in our kids takes place through practice. We are all works in progress, including our kids.”

Using Your Child As A Confidant

“Kids need to be kids,” Beresin said. “Whether we are considering a school-age child, teenager or even a young adult, they all have their own developmental trajectories with progressive separation from the family.”

He emphasized the importance of autonomy and identity formation for kids, especially teens and young adults, who need space to develop relationships with people separate from family and navigate the challenges that inevitably arise. Thus, parents should try not to over-involve their children in their own struggles and instead support their personal growth.

“At times, a parent uses the child, typically a teen or young adult, as a confidant,” Beresin said. “This role reversal thwarts separation and too often due to intense loyalty, abdicates their own development to help the parent. Inevitably, this leads to resentment.”

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