“I don’t know what to do when you feel like a failure as a parent,” my 42 year old client and single mother of 2 teenagers tells me.
“I dread the question,” she laments. “Oh, your son is 18, is he excited about college?”
Her darling progeny, a renegade since birth, has never chosen a traditional path and isn’t about to start now. In addition to being dead set against going to university he doesn’t have a path of any kind chosen. Motivation to push himself toward one is nowhere to be seen. She knows it’s time for some tough love. She doesn’t want to enable his lackadaisical ways yet is terrified he won’t land on his feet.
“I feel like I did everything right,” she continues, “I modeled hard work, let him face the consequences from his own behavior, rewarded good choices and loved him unconditionally. And here he is, an adult, and all I can see is a lazy, entitled, sass-mouth who refuses to take responsibility for his life. I feel like a complete and total failure.”
When you feel like a failure as a parent, remember you’re not alone. Whether you’re a parent to a toddler or to a teenager you’ve seen your kids behave in ways that leave you wondering where you dropped the ball. Maybe you should’ve (or shouldn’t have) let him cry it out at night. Did you potty train too soon or too late? Maybe you gave them too much freedom too soon…or was it not enough early on?? Breastfed or not. Vegetarian or Meat-atarian. GLUTEN!! You let the little shit eat her emotions with gluten-laden mac and cheese. At least it was organic….????
The parenting labyrinth you face is filled with decisions, contingencies, wrong ways and switchbacks. You may get lucky from time to time with some successful runs still, more often than not, you’re just doing the best that you can with the tools that you have in that moment while you try to set a little money aside for the inevitable therapy bills.
Luckily, there are some practical steps you can take to get yourself back on track and parenting with confidence again.
One Remember flexibility is the key to sanity; there is no singular “right” way to parent
Not only are no two kids alike but anyone who has raised a life from infancy knows that they do not come in as blank slates on which you’re meant to write your poetry. No do they come with a “What To Do When You Feel Like A Failure As A Parent” handbook.
Kids are born with engrained tendencies toward specific behaviors: bawlers or mewl-ers, curious or laid back, runners or dawdlers. With every natural propensity revealed through their stages you develop new tools and ideas on how to help them grow, some of which may fly in the face of what you were absolutely convinced was the “right” way to parent. Unless you have been parenting with the express intent to release an entitled little imp to the world you haven’t done anything wrong.
I told my kids in early adolescence, “Your path is YOUR path. I’m not saying I haven’t screwed you up somewhere along the way but the more time you spend away from me and the more influence the world has on your choices the more you are responsible for the consequences of those choices (the good and the painful). Try things on, sure. Just remember that the responsibility for your life is shifting from me to you every passing day.”
What to do when you feel like a failure as a parent? Keep score like this:
1) For everything that has garnered a result you like, give yourself a point for good luck and preparedness.
2) For everything else, treat it like an experiment, “well, that didn’t work, what else can I try (for myself and/or for them)?” then pivot…or maybe take a nap THEN pivot.
Expecting to get it wrong from time to time alleviates the guilt of missing the impossible perfect standard.
Two Be kind to yourself first
Despite your cultural teachings that good parents self-sacrifice, there is a tipping point that proves that giving too much for too long will leave you burnt out, your kids stressed out and actually models that same pattern to your kids as well. Self-advocacy, efficacy and vulnerability are incredibly valuable mechanisms in the toolkit of your family so teach your kids how to use them by using them yourself.
Be gracious with yourself. Even if you did screw up somewhere, who the hell said you have to be perfect at everything? And how the hell were you supposed to get better at parenting without some learning opportunities?!
De-stress and share the load at every single opportunity; raising kids really, really does take a village and your kids deserve the different takes on life and their role in others’ lives.
Remember why you love yourself. Even when you feel like a failure you are still inherently strong, compassionate, patient, empathetic or whatever adjective you’d use to fill in the blank. Remind yourself of these reasons every single day. Don’t let the little bastards define your self-worth. YOU get to choose how you show up in the world regardless of how they turn out.
Three Treat your perceived failures as a learning opportunity.
How do you know you’re leveling up in life? Because the shit hits the fan.
As building physical strength requires tiny tears in your muscles, so is emotional strength built through tears in your confidence. Ask for patience and you get opportunities to practice patience. Ask for forgiveness and all of the great ugly beasts from your past will rear their ugly heads so you can exercise “letting go.” Ask for healthy boundaries and everyone in your life will come clamoring for more than you can offer simply so you can practice setting reasonable limits and sticking to them.
When you feel like a failure remember this: Absolutely everything you’re in the midst of right now has an opportunity that will make you better at every virtue you possess… if you let it.
Notice, this isn’t about creating a long list of dos and don’ts in the “Good Parenting” file folder in your head. This is about checking in with who you are now, comparing that to who you want to become and using your current circumstances as the path to get you there. There’s a gift in this trial, I guarantee it. If you have trouble finding it use the free, downloadable “What Did I Do To Deserve This” journal pages to help you make meaning out of the madness.
Four It’s not personal and it’s not permanent; meet them where they are developmentally
Maybe yesterday they were the model child and today some growth spurt, change in sleep patterns or major cognitive change has made them vulnerable to their impulses. Due to major brain weight changes in the 3-5(ish) year old stage as well as the 12-20(ish) stage the brain naturally reverts to a reliance on the most developed part of the brain, the amygdala, which specializes in survival mechanisms like fight or flight (read: recalcitrance, defensiveness, denial and anger in our kids). Their bodies, brains and psyches are changing daily!!
There are times you can barely handle your own impulses; remember it’s even more difficult for them! This isn’t a “here’s how you can be a better parent” piece of advice – although it sure helps. Instead, realize that when you empathize with their developmental stage you more readily have grace with both you and your kids.
It also helps you remember that their devil-spawn behavior is NOT personal. When you feel like a failure as a parent it’s just a feeling!! Neither of you are failures at childhood or parenting. You’re both growing and changing and not always together. Let that be ok without a judgment and you’ll come out the other side of this better than you ever imagined.
Five Watch your judgments of others
No one else knows what to do when you feel like a failure as a parent either. So be careful how you talk (and think) about other parents when they’re going through Little Suzie’s Banshee Phase.
Are you an empathic listener and helping them problem solve or are you discussing Mama Suzie’s terrible parenting with your friends, “what can you expect when she’s being raise by a mother/father like that?” I don’t want you to go looking for more way to be self-critical but it’s very important to learn to reflect on where there may be a pattern that feeds into your current feelings of failure.
Very often we are faced with the exact set of circumstances we once judged someone else for. A humbling lesson, for sure, once we realize that the “everyone will think…” voice in our heads is really a tape of our previous criticism of others. Take a beat, see where you can add compassion and understanding into your relationships with other parents. Bonus points for finding friends who stick up for other moms and dads too.
The more compassionate your circle becomes, the more you’ll learn to be compassionate with yourself and others too.
Six You’re not the only one wondering what to do when you feel like a failure as a parent; Let go the reins and be vulnerable
The truth is we don’t really have control over much. The only place we have even a modicum of control is over ourselves. Even that is tenuous most of the time. Trying to muscle others or circumstances into a shape that meets your approval will inevitably lead to feelings of failure.
Wherever you are, surrender into the experience and fully own it. Own it with your partner. Own it with your kids. Own it with your friends. Let others know what you’re going through and accept the help that they offer. Efforts to maintain the perfect facade only deplete you and lead to further self-judgment. Trust this stage of your journey, however, and the path toward healing and growth will reveal itself.
Your authenticity around doubt and fear helps others understand theirs
Your kids will learn to have be gracious about their own foul-ups when they see that even parents are fallible. Other parents wonder what to do when you feel like a failure as a parent, too. Imagine the sigh of relief when everyone around you goes, “whew….you mean it’s not just me?!?!”
Seven If need be, get help
If problems are ongoing, or you feel out of your expertise and abilities, get help.
A doctor’s visit can help you rule out any health issues that might be a contributing factor.
A therapist for the family unit can make sure there aren’t any diagnoses as a contributing factor.
You’re not just “Patrick’s mom.” Use a life coach to help you find that vibrant person in there that goes by an actual name.
None of us are objective observers of our process. We all need that guide in our life willing to hold our hand while simultaneously holding up that mirror. That reflection is necessary to truly see ourselves as more than our roles for others. You’re no exception. Love yourself enough to reach out for help when you need it.
As a single parent of teenagers, I’ve watched my kids take two very different approaches to life. All I could ever really do is show them my menu of options for how to live. Their friends, their school and every other influence out there has been showing their menu of options too. Ultimately they choose. “Their path is THEIR path,” I say every time I feel either dismayed (or encouraged) by their behavior.
Likewise, your path is YOUR path. You’ve done your level best as their mom. Now you get to do the personal work around the inevitable self-doubt and criticism that comes along the way.
Remember to get your copy of the “What Have I Done To Deserve This” journal pages to help you find the purpose and the good in this tribulation.
If you’re having a hard time letting go of the expectation that your kids were yours to mold instead of their own to grow pick up the book FAIL* to Win: 4 Simple Principles To Get You Out Of Your Own way and use the tools. Not only will you find forgiveness for yourself and others, you’ll find every next step you need to move from one stage of your life to the next.