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Parenting and Self-Doubt

As a family therapist, I’m surprised by how often I encounter good parents who don’t trust their instincts. They come to me because no matter how hard they try to be positive, structured, consistent and nurturing, they still see imperfections in themselves and their children. They frequently question themselves (and sometimes even berate themselves) for their mistakes. They feel guilt because they’ve yelled, punished arbitrarily, called names and even hit their kids—and those things can’t possibly be OK, right? They’re torn between believing that they’re doing their best and feeling like bad parents, and sometimes even bad people. When I come across these tortured souls I tell them one thing: Self-doubt is a sign of a good parent.

Parents who think they’ve got it wired make me nervous. Their kids are perfect, they always know just what to do and their waysimply works (you should try it!). They are confident, natural-born parents—or so the rest of us flawed parents have come to believe.

Although it doesn’t feel good, self-doubting parents often make better parents.

One of the toughest challenges good parents face is the constant temptation to compare themselves to a standard that doesn’t exist. They play with their kids, do arts and crafts, cart them all over town for sports and watch almost every performance. Yet, when they make mistakes, they can’t help but think of the super-parents next door who would never do that. They doubt themselves—and although it doesn’t feel good, self-doubting parents often make better parents.

Why? Because with self-doubt, these parents will never believe they’re perfect (and their kids will learn that imperfect is OK). Because they’ll apologize for their mistakes (and their kids will, too). And because they’ll examine their behavior, vow to do better and start working on it right away (because they know that their kids are counting on it).

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Now, let’s be clear—self-doubt is most constructive when it is not excessive. In addition, some common parenting behaviors that lead to self-doubt—yelling, punishing inconsistently and arbitrarily, name calling and spanking—are proven to be ineffective and even harmful. Although parents will never be perfect, when these behaviors are at the root of self-doubt, I encourage parents to work on remaining calm, using a structured and consistent system of rewards and consequences and to never, ever hit or put down their kids.

In order to make sure self-doubt remains at a constructive level, it is important to work on changing the behaviors that cause it in the first place. There are four keys to changing unwanted parenting behaviors: self-soothing, seeking support, self-forgiveness and focusing on strengths. It is important to note that each of these skills requires practice, and just like anything else worth learning, people rarely become experts on their first try.

Self-Soothe

Effective self-soothing should be part of a daily routine. If your plan is to just do it in the moment, it rarely works. It doesn’t need to be expensive or time consuming. In fact, often the best self-soothing is simple and fast. Take five minutes twice a day to sit in a quiet place, sit up straight and take slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth (aim for a count of four or five). This will help you learn how to slow your breathing, and consequently your heart rate, much more quickly when you’re agitated or angry. With daily practice, you’ll be more successful at using this skill in heat of the moment to ensure that you can make good, conscious choices about your parenting behavior.

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Seek Support

Another way to help make sure you make good parenting choices and have time to self-soothe is to seek support. If you are lucky enough to have a parenting partner who is active and engaged, rely on him or her to have your back in those difficult moments. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don’t always try to do everything yourself. Whenever possible, tag team—if you’re overwhelmed, tap out and go self-soothe. Even if you don’t have someone available to help you in the moment, it is still important to seek out other support. Talk to your family, vent to your friends and do whatever you can to unwind in the precious few quiet moments. Remember you are not alone in these parenting challenges.

Forgive Yourself & Focus on Strengths

For many of the parents I see, these are the hardest steps. Somewhere along the way, they were taught that the best way to learn from their mistakes was to completely beat themselves up, which is simply counter-productive. It turns out it’s much more effective to forgive and focus.

Once you’re done self-soothing, your job is to remind yourself that you are imperfect and that you are going to work every day to get better. Think of all of the good things about yourself that you can rely on to help you behave differently next time. Write a list of your Top 5 Strengths (do more if you want). Be sure the list contains things that you really believe about yourself. Aim for things you accept as true at least 90j percent of the time, remembering no one gets it right 100 percent of the time. Then, if an incident occurs, your job is to self-soothe, seek support, forgive yourself for your mistake, plan what you want to do differently next time and then review how your strengths can help you accomplish it.

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Pay attention to your own successes just as you would to those of your kids. Praise yourself. Reward yourself. The self-doubt will return in due time. Enjoy even the small victories while they last.

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