There are few things more rewarding than raising a child. Many of us find a depth of love for another human being that we never knew was possible before becoming a mom or a dad.
And yet no matter how much we love being a parent or how much meaning we derive from it, it’s no easy task to raise a person. Even people with wildly different opinions about the best way to parent will agree on one thing: It’s hard work.
The work is even harder when we have a constant critic telling us we’re doing a bad job. I’m not talking about the endless supply of pundits who try to tell us how to raise our kids—I’m talking about an inside job.
As a therapist and a dad, I’m familiar with the things we say to ourselves as parents, especially the less friendly stuff. We may automatically believe the things we tell ourselves, not even entertaining the possibility that what we’re thinking is bogus.
In my practice I often provide cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to address the thoughts that drive depression and anxiety. We can use the same tools to identify and challenge the thoughts that can plague parents.
Some of the common self-critical thoughts include:
“Most parents are doing a better job than I am.”
If we care about being a good parent, we’re going to notice times we fail—and since we’re with ourselves all the time, we’ll know every time we let our kids down. In contrast, we tend to see a curated version of others’ parenting—what they choose to let others see.
The more I talk to parents, including the ones I admire, the more I realize we all face the same kinds of challenges. We tend to struggle to be patient at bedtime, we get frustrated more than we care to admit, and we feel guilty at the end of the day. We vow to do better the next day, and sometimes we do, but we never parent perfectly.
If you’re concerned about being the best parent you can, chances are you’re doing a better job than you think you are.
“I should always find my child interesting.”
Like most “should” statements, this one is worth questioning. Our own kids can provide an endless source of interest and delight (other people’s kids … maybe not so much). We can find their simplest acts entertaining: rolling over for the first time, smiling, starting to walk.
At the same time, it’s easy to get bored by kid activities. Maybe it’s hard to play Legos for more than a few minutes, or imaginative play doesn’t capture our imagination. Maybe we get tired of pretending to follow our child’s endless chatter. Perhaps we feel exhausted from listening to our teenager’s social problems.
Feeling bored doesn’t mean you don’t love your kids or that there’s something wrong with you. It probably just means you’re fully human.
“I should attend all of my child’s events.”
For many of us, being involved as parents is our number one priority. Maybe our own parents weren’t very present and we’ve vowed to do it differently—or they were always there and we want our kids to have the same thing.
We want to foster close connection with our children, let them know we value them, and understand what’s going on in their lives. These intentions could translate into thinking we have to attend every single event, from end-of-year picnics to high school graduation.
Like many intentions, these are good ones to have if we aren’t overly rigid about them. At times there may be conflicting commitments, or things we would just rather do instead.
We don’t have to criticize ourselves for being able to be in only one place at a time. We can let go of some of the all-or-nothing thinking that says we always have to go to everything.
“I should never lose patience with my child.”
Parenthood offers countless opportunities to practice patience. As I’ve written in a previous post, few things affect our autonomy as much as being a parent does, and it’s challenging to keep our cool when these little beings are not falling in step with what we need them to do.
Again we can come back to the intention of being patient while also practicing patience with ourselves. Whether we “should” or “shouldn’t” lose patience, we do. Obviously verbal or physical abuse is a different matter, but every parent I know of (including me) occasionally loses patience—and by “occasionally” I mean at least daily.
“I am doing irreparable harm to my relationship with my kids.”
When we’re lying in bed at night we might start regretting the day’s parental missteps: speaking harshly, missing an opportunity to empathize, not offering the support a child needed. In the process we might start to imagine we’ve forever altered the relationship we have with our child, for the worse.
Obviously the pattern of interactions we have with our kids is going to shape the relationships we have with them. It makes a difference whether if fear vs. criticism vs. love.
That said, parent-child relationships are surprisingly resilient. Some of the adults I know who have great relationships with their parents described major problems with their parents when they were younger, especially as teenagers. It’s amazing how those relationships can be restored with time and as both parents and kids mature.
“I should always sacrifice my interests for those of my child.”
Major sacrifices are an inevitable part of parenting. Your whole life changes and your time is often not your own anymore. You’ll have less time for hobbies, self-care, work, and other relationships.
Also inevitable are times when your needs and your child’s will conflict. Maybe your child wants to play with you and you’re in desperate need of a 15-minute nap. Or maybe you haven’t seen friends in ages and going out with them will mean missing dinner with the family.
If we’re not careful we can assume that we should always prioritize our kids’ needs over our own. In the process we risk not being our best as parents. Our emotional reserves can become overdrawn as our moods can head south. We might even become resentful that our own needs aren’t being met.
As with everything else, we can aim for balance. There are times when our needs have to take a back seat, and others when we have to be our own first priority.
“My kids would be better off without me.”
This thought is the most troubling of all, since it can be linked to thoughts of ending one’s own life. I can all but guarantee that your kids would not be better off without you, and certainly not through suicide.
If you find yourself thinking this kind of thought, and especially if you’re also experiencing depression, please tell someone right away. Talk with that person about whether it might be time to consider treatment to help you start feeling better.
Identifying Problematic Thoughts
Figuring out what we’re telling ourselves is the first step in examining our thoughts with CBT. Then we can challenge the ones that are bringing us down.
The next time you’re beating yourself up about your parenting, consider taking these steps:
- Write down the situation that provoked feeling upset with yourself. For example, Joan might say, “Raised my voice when my 2-year-old wouldn’t get in her car seat.”
- Write down what you’re telling yourself about your actions in that situation. In this example Joan tells herself, “I’m such a bad parent.”
- Write down how you feel about the situation. Joan noticed that she felt guilty, sad, and angry.
In summary this situation was:
Raised my voice → “I’m such a bad parent” → Felt guilty, sad, angry
Once we’ve outlined what happened—situation, feelings, emotions—we’re ready to start challenging these thoughts.
How to Challenge Problematic Thoughts
Keep in mind that the goal of CBT is not to tell ourselves “happy thoughts”—after all, if our parenting really does need a radical improvement, that is crucial information to know. We want to move toward more accurate thoughts, which most of the time will also be kinder to ourselves.
In order to figure out if what we’re telling ourselves is true, we simply examine the evidence. First ask yourself what evidence supports your thought, and then consider if there’s evidence that doesn’t support it—maybe something you’re ignoring or minimizing.
For Joan’s thought that “I’m such a bad parent,” expressing impatience at her child could be evidence of sub-optimal parenting (though not necessarily). Evidence against that thought might include, “I apologized afterward and we had a really nice time reading together.”
After you’ve fairly weighed both sides, ask yourself how accurate the original thought was. Would you change it in any way to better fit reality?
Joan concluded that “I’m such a bad parent” was a pretty black-or-white way of seeing herself. She decided a better perspective was:
“I’m not always the parent I want to be, and will keep working on ways to stay calm when I’m feeling frustrated.”
That thought was one she felt like she could live with. Rather than feeling upset she felt a sense of resolve, and a determination to keep growing and doing the best she could.
You can find a form for this exercise at http://downloads.callistomediabooks.com/cbt/; simply provide your email and then click on the form called “Challenging Your Thoughts (expanded form).”
Have you wrestled with self-critical thoughts of your own? Please feel free to share how you’ve dealt with them in the Comments section below.