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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
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).
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-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
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
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.