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The Parent-Child Match

The unexpected gift of the dissimilar child.

Key points

  • The odds are that most parents find themselves raising children who are quite a bit different from themselves.
  • When raising children who are sensitive or quiet, matching their slower pace and gentler approach can help them build resilience and confidence.
  • Parenting an excitable, energetic child may be tiring at times, but joining in their enthusiasm can guide them toward self-control and pride.

By Elizabeth Sylvester, Ph.D.

Every child is a genetic roll of the dice: Maybe your child has your hair and his grandfather’s height. Maybe you recognize her father’s peaceful disposition, but something in her sense of humor reminds you of your sister. The possible combinations are virtually limitless.

With this wealth of possible types, it’s inevitable that we will feel different degrees of rapport, familiarity, and connectedness with our various children. We can easily find ourselves raising children who feel very different from us. When there is a “match” between a parent and a child it can lead to wondrous moments of resonance, intuitive understanding, and intimacy. In instances of “mismatch," we receive the gift of seeing life differently than we would otherwise. Our dissimilar children can amaze us with their gifts, provide us with experiences we would never have sought out on our own, and bring new empathy and insight to our view of the world.

In the rough and tumble of day-to-day life, however, a “mismatch” can cause unanticipated stress and struggles to connect. For example, a loud, expressive, and energetic parent of a highly sensitive child may unintentionally overstimulate the child. Such a parent may have difficulty matching their level of stimulation to the receptivity of the child, or may have difficulty recognizing the child’s more subtle expressions of emotions and needs. This parent may need to work hard to match their child’s natural pace, to meet them without overwhelming them, and to allow them the time and space they need to express themself.

Conversely, highly active, emotionally intense, willful children can be especially challenging for a more sensitive, irritable, or fragile parent, who may be overly stressed by the demands of keeping up with, resonating to, and setting limits with a ball of fire. In these situations, the parent may be tempted to withdraw or become overly accommodating (or permissive) in order to avoid the stress of conflict. Yet, what the child actually needs is to have their intensity appreciated, matched, and guided. In short, while it is challenging to sensitively parent a dissimilar child, this process can strengthen attachment and bolster the child’s self-worth.

The parent-child relationship, like any relationship, is co-constructed. That means that the parent and the child build the relationship together. Each brings their own unique qualities to each interaction, which affect their experience together. In the context of this elemental two-way relationship, the child creates a template for his role and his expectations for future relationships.

Secure attachments result when a parent is accurately attuned to their child on a regular basis and follows the child’s pacing much of the time. The repeated experience of being seen, understood, and well-paced creates in the child a sense of security and of feeling valued. In a home where personality differences are acknowledged, accepted, and valued, the child can develop confidence and comfort in primary relationships. This then becomes part of their template, which is literally encoded in their developing brain.

Connecting with a child in this healthy and harmonious way is easy in theory but harder in practice. It can be quite difficult when you must leave your comfort zone to resonate with your child and to match their energy and sensibilities. However, it’s in these moments of disconnection or tension that it’s so important to see the child accurately, adjust to respect their natural pace and rhythm, and move with them, not against them.

Slowing and quieting when your sensitive child needs more space or time, or allowing for exuberance or rage in your intense child, can be difficult, but ultimately communicates that the child’s natural style of being is just fine. When, as a parent, you are able to more often than not pull off this feat, you have given your child a gift she will carry within forever, the gift of feeling lovable and that others can be trusted.


Sylvester, E. & Scherer, K. (2022) Relationship-based Treatment of Children and Their Parents: An integrative guide to neurobiology, attachment, regulation, and discipline. WW Norton.

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