13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don't Do
Early on in life, I decided that when I grew up I was going to help kids in need. Throughout my childhood, my parents always helped anyone they could. Both of them were postmasters who seemed to have a special knack for recognizing an underdog. Whether they made anonymous donations to someone in need or they lent a helping hand to someone down on their luck, they were generous with whatever we had.
It’s no wonder both my sister and I became social workers. Both of our parents were unofficial social workers for years. But long before I ever got my social-work license, my goal was to become a foster parent.
I had grown up knowing that there were kids who didn’t have families. Some of them didn’t have homes. And many of them had never felt loved. So I decided that someday, when I had my own house, I’d take in kids who needed a place to live.
When I was in college, I met Lincoln—my future husband. He was an adventurous person who loved to travel, meet new people, and try new things. Early on in our relationship, I told him my goal was to become a foster parent. Fortunately, he loved the idea. Right after we got married—while I was still finishing graduate school—we bought a four-bedroom house and started the foster-care licensing process. We chose to become therapeutic foster parents, which meant we would raise children with serious behavior problems or emotional issues. There were classes to take, a home-study process to complete, and modifications that had to be made to our home to meet the foster-care licensing requirements.
But about a year later, just as we were finishing up the licensing process, my mother passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm. At her funeral, I heard countless stories—many of them from people I’d never met—about how she helped them in some way or other. Hearing those stories of all the lives she touched reminded me about what was really important in life—the legacy you leave behind. My mother’s generosity fueled my desire to help children more than ever.
Within a few months, our therapeutic foster-care license came through and our journey as foster parents began. By then, I was working as a psychotherapist at a community mental health center. I worked exclusively with children, many of whom had behavior problems, and their parents. Becoming a foster parent gave me an opportunity to apply the principles I was teaching parents in my therapy office to the children who came into our home.
Lincoln and I loved being foster parents and we began to talk about adoption. None of the children who stayed with us were available for adoption, however. They all had plans to return to their birth families or to be adopted by other relatives. So we started looking at the adoption waiting lists to see if we could find a child who might fit into our family well.
But on the three-year anniversary of my mother’s death all of our hopes for adopting a child changed in an instant. Late that Saturday evening, Lincoln said he didn’t feel well. A few minutes later, he collapsed. I called for an ambulance and the first responders rushed him to the hospital. I called Lincoln’s family and they met me in the emergency room. I wasn’t sure how to explain to them what happened. It had all happened so fast.
We just sat there in the waiting room until a doctor came out and invited us into the emergency room. But rather than take us to see Lincoln, he took us to a small, private room and sat us down. The words that came out of his mouth changed my life forever. “I’m sorry to tell you, but Lincoln has passed away.”
And with that one sentence, I went from planning to adopt a child to planning my husband’s funeral. The next few months were a blur.
We later learned he’d died of a heart attack. He was only twenty-six and didn’t have any history of heart problems. But ultimately, it didn’t matter how he died. All that mattered and all I knew was that he was gone.
Fortunately, we didn’t have any children living with us at that particular time. I could only imagine how traumatic it could have been for a foster child to have been there. We’d actually had plans for a little boy to move in later that week. When his guardian heard the news, he found him a different foster home.
For a while I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a single foster parent. I worked a full-time job, and with foster children, there are always lots of appointments, visits with birth families, and meetings with guardians and lawyers. It would be a tough job from a practical standpoint, but also an emotional one. I took about a year off from foster parenting. With help from my faith in God, the love of my friends and my family, and the knowledge I had about grief from my work as a therapist, I put one foot in front of the other.
It took about a year for the fog from grief to start to lift. But once I felt like I was in a place where I could be an effective parent, I notified the foster-care administrators that I was ready to be a foster parent again.
I began my new adventure as a single parent by doing mostly weekend respite work. That meant I cared for foster children whose full-time foster parents either needed a break for a few days or they needed to attend to family affairs without their foster child present.
The transition back into foster parenting went smoothly and gave me something to look forward to on the weekends. As a young widow, I found that staying active was sometimes a challenge. But caring for children gave me a sense of meaning and purpose.
It took a couple of years to establish a new sense of “normal” in my life without Lincoln. Many of the things I enjoyed doing with Lincoln weren’t as much fun without him. And although some people encouraged me to start dating, I wasn’t interested.
But that all changed when I met Steve. He was different from anyone I’d ever known. And it didn’t take long to fall in love. Fortunately, he wasn’t scared away by the fact that I was a widow or that my goal was to continue being a foster parent.
After dating for about a year, we eloped to Las Vegas and began a new chapter in our lives. Steve had to go through the foster-care licensing process too—background check, classes, and a home study. But it was faster this time around since my home already met the foster-care licensing standards. Within a few months, Steve was a fully licensed foster parent.
Our lives melded together quite nicely and life was smooth sailing for a while. But then, Steve’s father, Rob, was diagnosed with cancer. At first, he was given a good prognosis. But despite multiple treatments, his health deteriorated. A few months later, doctors said his condition was terminal.
The news hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d already lost my mother and Lincoln. Rob and I had grown close and I couldn’t imagine losing him too. I started thinking about how unfair it was that I had to lose another person so close to me in such a short amount of time.
But before I let myself host a lengthy pity party, I reminded myself that mentally strong people don’t feel sorry for themselves. Through my work as a therapist and my personal experiences with grief, I knew bad habits like self-pity could rob me of mental strength, if I let them. And with that, I sat down and I wrote a list of all the things mentally strong people don’t do.
I published my list of the thirteen things mentally strong people don’t do to my blog, hoping someone else might find it useful. Within days my list went viral and it was read by tens of millions of people. But very few people knew that I’d written that article as a letter to myself during one of my lowest points.
Just two weeks after that article went viral, Rob passed away. And throughout my grief I reminded myself not to do the things mentally strong people don’t do.
That viral article led to the opportunity to write a book about the thirteen things mentally strong people don’t do. It was an honor to be able to share those lessons I’ve learned about resilience. And while I have received many questions from readers, there was one question I kept receiving over and over again: How do we teach these skills to kids?
I’ve also heard many readers say, “I wish I could have learned this stuff a long time ago.” So I’m excited to be able to provide a guide for teaching kids how to build mental strength. Developing mental muscle early will prepare them for a brighter, better future.
Through my work as a therapist, and my experience as a foster parent, I know it’s possible for kids of all ages and backgrounds to become mentally strong. But it’s essential for the adults in their lives to be invested in helping them practice the exercises that will help them become stronger.
The Benefits of Raising Mentally Strong Kids
Frederick Douglass once said, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” As a therapist, I know this is true. It’s much easier to gain mental muscle during childhood. And childhood is full of opportunities for growth.
You can’t prevent your child from facing adversity. He’s going to fail and get rejected. He’s going to experience loss and heartache. And he’s going to face hard times.
But if you give him the tools he needs to build mental strength, he’ll be able to turn those hardships into opportunities to grow stronger and become better. No matter what circumstances he faces in life, and no matter what sort of hand he was dealt, he’ll know he’s strong enough to overcome it.
That’s not to say your child won’t still struggle with his emotions or have difficulty handling stress. But mental strength will help him cope with hardship in a productive manner. It will also give him the courage to tackle problems head-on, gain confidence in his skills, and learn from failure.
The Components of Mental Strength
As kids grow and learn, they develop core beliefs about themselves, other people, and the world in general. If you’re not proactively helping your child establish a healthy outlook, however, he may develop beliefs that limit his potential.
Core beliefs influence how children interpret events and how they respond to their circumstances. More importantly, those beliefs may turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. A child who labels himself as a failure, for example, won’t put effort into improving his life. Or, a child who believes he can’t succeed in life because other people will hold him back, isn’t likely to fulfill his potential.
Your child’s core beliefs influence how he thinks, feels, and behaves. Here’s an example of how core beliefs influence two different children who don’t make the basketball team:
- Core belief: I’m not good enough.
- Thoughts: I’ll never be good at basketball. I’m just not athletic.
- Feelings: Sad and rejected.
- Behavior: He quits playing basketball.
- Core belief: I’m a capable person.
- Thoughts: If I practice, I can get better. Maybe I’ll make the team next year.
- Feelings: Determined and hopeful.
- Behavior: He practices basketball every day after school.
While core beliefs can be modified later in life, it’s more challenging to alter them as an adult. After holding on to a certain belief for decades, it’s difficult to “unlearn” what you’ve always held to be true. And the unhealthy thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that reinforce that belief will be harder to change.
In addition to helping your child build healthy core beliefs, you also need to teach her how to regulate her thoughts, manage her emotions, and behave in a productive manner. Here are the three components of mental strength:
- Thoughts—Exaggeratedly negative thoughts, harsh self-criticism, and catastrophic predictions will prevent your child from reaching her greatest potential. But the solution isn’t to just teach your child to be optimistic. Being overly confident and ignoring realistic dangers can leave her ill-equipped and unprepared for the realities of life. Teach her how to have a realistic outlook so she can perform at her peak.
- Behavior—Unproductive behavior, like complaining and staying inside her comfort zone, will interfere with your child’s education, relationships, and future career. Teach your child how to challenge herself and make healthy choices, even on the days when she doesn’t feel motivated.
- Emotions—Getting stuck in a bad mood, losing her temper, and avoiding fear are just a few ways your child’s inability to regulate her emotions could limit her ability to live a rich and full life. Teach your child how to manage her emotions and she’ll enjoy many lifelong rewards, such as improved self-control and better communication skills.
Why the Focus Is on What Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do
In a world where one in thirteen U.S. children take psychiatric medication for emotional and behavioral problems, and 31 percent of teens report feeling overwhelmed by stress, it’s clear that today’s young people aren’t learning how to develop mental strength. Yet most parents have no idea how to help their children build mental muscle.
Whether it’s an anger management problem or a body-image issue, every week parents bring their children into my office asking, “Can you help my child?” While I’m always happy to try, teaching a child to change the way he thinks, feels, and behaves is a slow process when I only see him once a week for an hour-long therapy appointment. But if I can teach the parents how to coach their child, they’ll see results much faster.
As a parent, you have an opportunity to help your child gain mental muscle every day by giving him exercises to practice. And, you’ll be right there with him during some of life’s most teachable moments. Whether he’s having a bad day or he’s struggling with a particular problem, you can coach him right on the spot.
As I explain in my first book, building mental strength is a lot like building physical strength. If you want to become physically strong, you need good habits, like going to the gym. But if you really want to see results, you also need to give up bad habits, like eating too much junk food.
Building mental strength requires good habits too. But it also requires that you give up the unhealthy thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that hold you back. Quite often, parents inadvertently inhibit their child’s growth. It takes only a few bad parenting habits to interfere with a child’s ability to gain mental muscle.
Mental strength exercises train the brain the same way physical exercises strengthen the body. Helping your child practice the exercises in each chapter will help him build mental muscle.
Refusing to do the thirteen things mentally strong parents don’t do will give your child opportunities to use his mental muscles, which can, in turn, help him grow even stronger. Giving up those bad parenting habits will also help you work smarter, not harder. You’ll be teaching your child the skills he needs with less effort.
You can’t teach a child how to be mentally strong by handing him a list of bad habits to give up. Saying, “Don’t feel sorry for yourself,” isn’t likely to put an end to the pity parties he hosts when he’s had a bad day. And telling him not to give up after his first failure won’t miraculously boost his confidence.
But there are steps you can take to show your child how to avoid those thirteen unhealthy habits that will rob him of mental strength. The parenting strategies described in this book will help you teach your child to avoid the things mentally strong people don’t do, in a kid-friendly manner.
Each chapter provides strategies to help your child develop healthy core beliefs that will make his attempts to grow stronger more effective. You’ll also find specific exercises—both for you and your child—that will help your child reach his greatest potential.
Be a Good Role Model
A victim mentality is mostly a learned behavior. If you tend to be a glass-half-empty kind of person, you might be unintentionally teaching your child he’s a victim of life’s unfortunate circumstances.
Complaining about your life—without actually taking any action—convinces your child that you’re a helpless victim. Or, blaming other people or certain groups of people for holding you back in life teaches your child that other people have the power to prevent him from reaching his goals.
Here are a few ways to be a good role model:
- Be positive. Be aware of how much you complain about other people and tough circumstances. Whether you insist the heavy traffic isn’t fair or you complain you can’t afford a better house, your gripes will affect the way your child views the world. Offer more positive statements than negative ones.
- Resist the urge to vent. Although you might think rehashing your day with your friends and family is helpful because it lets you “get out your frustration,” venting does more harm than good—for both the listener and the speaker. So while it can be helpful to process your emotions, make sure you aren’t unleashing your negativity on a daily basis.
- Create positive change. Show your child that you can make a difference in the world—or at least in someone’s world. Perform acts of kindness and help other people. Teach your child that everyone has the ability to make the world better.
- Be assertive. If someone cuts in front of you in line, speak up politely. Or, if you receive poor service, talk to a manager about it. Your child will learn he doesn’t have to be a passive victim when he sees you’re willing to speak up for yourself.
Go After the Good
Lilly didn’t like school. And every day she couldn’t wait to burst through the door and tell her mother about all the problems she encountered. One day she’d say, “Mom, you’re not going to believe what happened at lunch today. The teachers made us eat in silence because some of the kids were being too loud!” The next day she’d say, “Mom, the kids on the bus were so mean today. I don’t want to ride the bus ever again!”
Every day her mother, Holly, listened intently to all the injustices her daughter suffered. She responded by saying things like, “That’s horrible. I’m sorry you had to go through that.” Holly thought lending her daughter a sympathetic ear was the best thing she could do.
What she didn’t realize was that she was giving her daughter positive attention for being a victim. She encouraged her to keep talking about everything that went wrong. The longer this went on, the more Lilly focused on all the reasons she hated school.
Changing Lilly’s “poor me” attitude required Holly to change their daily afterschool interactions. Rather than continue to invite Lilly to complain about all the bad things that happened, Holly needed to go after the good.
That meant asking questions like, “What was your favorite part about school today?” or “Start by telling me the best thing that happened to you today.” Instead of allowing her daughter to dwell on all the unfairness and maltreatment she’d suffered, Holly could help her recognize a few positive aspects.
If your child focuses on the negative, avoid questions like “How was your day?” Instead, go after the good by asking, “What was the happiest part of your day?” Be willing to hear about the difficult parts as well—but don’t make hardship the focus of your conversation.
How to Teach Kids to See Themselves as Strong
In the case of Cody and his ADHD diagnosis, the solution to his educational problems was to shift the family’s beliefs. Once his parents began viewing him as capable, Cody believed he could improve his grades. Teach your child to believe in himself and he’ll strive to reach his greatest potential.
Help Your Child Focus on What He Can Control
Whether you’re going through a divorce or your child hates school, it can be easy to convince yourself that your child is a helpless victim. But the truth is, no matter what your child is faced with, he always has the ability to control something.
An organization called Kids Kicking Cancer proves that even kids who find themselves in the most difficult of circumstances can find control over something. This group has made it their mission to help kids with cancer recognize that although they can’t control their health or their treatments, they can gain some control over their pain and discomfort.
Kids are taught mind-body techniques, such as martial arts, breathing techniques, and meditation. The goal is to help them regain a sense of control over the chaos and to feel empowered in their own healing. Some kids who have been through the program report they’re able to sit still during blood draws (where in the past it had taken several nurses to hold them down) and others say they’re able to stay still during their scans thanks to the breathing techniques they learned.
If kids with life-threatening illnesses can discover things they have control over, there are definitely things you can help your child feel like he has control over. Even when he can’t control the environment, he can control his thoughts, his effort, and his attitude.
When your child complains, ask questions like:
- What can you control in this situation?
- What are your choices?
- What kind of attitude are you going to choose?
Differentiate Between BLUE and True Thoughts
Your child needs to recognize that just because he thinks something doesn’t mean it’s true. When he’s had a rough day or he’s in a bad mood, his thoughts are likely to be overly negative. And believing those negative thoughts will not only make his mood worse, but it could reinforce the idea that he’s a victim.
While there are several kinds of thinking errors, the acronym BLUE is a good way to help kids remember when their thoughts might be too upsetting to be true. Developed by PracticeWise, it’s a common tool used in therapy to help kids combat negative thinking. Here’s what you can be on the lookout for:
- Blaming everyone else. Thinking things like “My teacher never tells us what to study for tests, so I always get bad grades” prevents your child from seeing how he can do better next time. While you don’t want your child to take on extra responsibility (like assuming a team’s loss is all his fault), don’t let him blame other people and external circumstances.
- Talk about responsibility. Talk about how to accept personal responsibility for his share of the outcome. Ask questions like “Is it really all your teacher’s fault?”
- Looking for the bad news. Kids with a victim mentality screen out all the good things that happen to them and only focus on the bad. So rather than celebrate that he went swimming, a child who sees himself as a victim might say, “It was horrible! It started raining so we had to come home early!”
- Point out the good. When your child insists nothing good happened, take a moment to point out the positive. Ask a question like “Did you have fun before it rained?” Help him see that good things happen, even during his toughest days.
- Unhappy guessing. A victim mentality leads kids to make catastrophic predictions. Thinking something like “I’m going to fail my test tomorrow” may cause your child to believe there’s no use in studying.
- Encourage your child to take action. When your child predicts bad things will happen, don’t let her be a passive victim. Ask questions like “What can you do to prevent that from happening?” If it’s something she has no control over (like she predicts it’s going to rain), help her think about how she’ll cope when faced with difficulties.
- Exaggeratedly negative. It’s easy for kids to let their imaginations get the best of them, especially when they’re upset. A child who thinks she’s a victim might say things like “Everyone in the whole school is mad at me!” after having an argument with two friends.
- Look for exceptions. When your child insists things never go right or she’s always in trouble, help her find exceptions to the rule. Say something like “Well, what’s one time when things did go right?”
When your child starts feeling sorry for himself, ask, “Is that a BLUE thought or a true thought?” Teach him to identify the BLUE thoughts that contribute to his victim mentality and remind him that although some things might feel true, his thoughts won’t always be accurate. Help him see that stretching the truth—even in his mind—isn’t helpful. Then help him replace his internal monologue with more realistic thoughts.
Speak Up or Shut Up
Kids with a victim mentality either become overzealous in proclaiming that their rights have been violated or they become overly submissive and allow bad things to happen to them. While it’s important for your child to learn to speak up for himself when he encounters certain injustices in life, it’s equally important that he not declare he’s been victimized every time he disagrees with someone else.
There are times when it’s appropriate to push back against authority and times when it makes sense to stay respectfully silent. But deciding on the best course of action is a sophisticated skill.
Talk about the following scenarios with your child and come up with situations of your own. Discuss the pros and cons of speaking up and the risks and potential benefits of staying silent. Listen to your child’s insights as well as the reasons behind them. Offer your own words of wisdom about when to speak up and when to stay silent:
- An umpire makes a call you disagree with.
- A teacher gives you a grade you don’t think you deserve.
- A child is calling another kid names on the playground.
- Someone shares an inappropriate joke on social media.
- A teacher is scolding a child for not getting his work done.
- A friend borrows something from you and doesn’t give it back.
- A coach yells at you because you’re not paying attention in the game.
- A friend says only certain types of kids can sit at the lunch table.
Give Your Child Free Time to Play
Today’s kids spend the majority of their free time engaging in structured activities that are monitored by adults. Basketball practice, guitar lessons, scouts, and summer camps involve adult-led activities and adult-created rules.
And according to sociologist Steven Horwitz, too much adult intervention fuels a victim mentality. Rather than learn how to negotiate, create rules, and follow social norms as a group, kids automatically turn to an adult to referee at the first sign of a disagreement.
Then, the adult decides who is “right” and who is “wrong.” The kid who sought adult help gains validation that he needs someone else to fight his battles. The other kids get the message that you can’t offend anyone or a third party will be notified to solve the conflict.
Give your child unstructured time to play. Don’t hover when he’s playing with friends and don’t rush in to intervene every time there’s a hint of trouble. Give him an opportunity to practice resolving conflict on his own.
Of course, it’s important to get involved if there’s a child who is clearly being taken advantage of repeatedly. But there are times when your child will figure things out on her own when there aren’t adults there to make sure everything is “fair.”
Empowered Kids Become Resilient Adults
Jim Abbott was born without a right hand. But his parents weren’t going to let that stop him from realizing his dreams.
When young Abbott announced he wanted to play baseball, his parents asked, “Why not?” and they signed him up for Little League.
With only one hand, he learned how to pitch. That meant he had to balance the glove on his left arm, throw the ball, then quickly put the glove back on his right hand so he could field. And when the ball was hit to him, he had to field it, take the glove off, and throw it to first all with his left hand. But somehow, he made it work.
And it kept on working. He was a standout pitcher in high school and he went on to play in college, where he won a multitude of awards. By age twenty-one, he’d even won a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics.
His skills captured the attention of Major League Baseball. He was drafted by the California Angels without ever playing a single game in the minor leagues. He spent ten years in the major leagues, where he won eighty-seven games, including a dramatic no-hitter.
Abbott’s parents acknowledged the extra challenges he faced without a right hand, but they taught him he could overcome those challenges. Abbott says his father—who was only eighteen when Abbott was born—did everything with him that other fathers did with their sons. They fished, rode bikes, and played ball. “When I went out into the world and felt like I’d been spit out the other side, my father would turn me around, open the front door, and send me back out,” he explains in his book, Imperfect: An Improbable Life.
When a child refuses to play the role of the victim, he won’t waste time throwing a pity party. Instead he’ll take action. He’ll believe he has the power to make his life—and other people’s lives—better. He’ll be invested in making the world a better place because empowered kids turn into unstoppable adults.
Mentally strong people don’t feel sorry for themselves. And if you want to raise a child who will turn into an adult who refuses to engage in self-pity, don’t condone a victim mentality. Empower your child to deal with life’s challenges head-on, rather than insist he’s a powerless victim.
Life isn’t always easy. And it’s healthy to acknowledge that to your child. But make it clear that even though life is tough, you’re tougher. Give your child the skills he needs to create the type of life he wants to live—and the confidence to overcome the obstacles that stand in his way.
Troubleshooting and Common Traps
Be careful that you don’t inadvertently reward your child for being a “victim.” If your child says he got picked on at recess, resist the urge to say, “Let’s go out to eat at your favorite restaurant tonight,” to make him feel better. Otherwise he’ll learn that being a victim leads to rewards.
Similarly, if your child is going through a difficult time, don’t cut him too much extra slack. Letting your child avoid chores because you’re going through a divorce or giving your child permission to stay home from school because he’s overwhelmed by his work will only reinforce the idea that he’s a victim who deserves special treatment.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, parents sometimes minimize a child’s feelings. In an effort to “toughen him up,” a parent might be tempted to say things like “Stop acting like you’re the victim here.” But being too cold could reinforce your child’s victim mentality, as he’ll start to think you don’t care.
Show empathy by saying things like “This must be really hard” or “I know this is tough right now.” But make it clear to your child that no matter what circumstances he faces, he has options in how he responds. When you show that you have faith in his ability to deal with hard times, he’ll feel confident he can handle adversity.
Don’t let your child’s victim mentality distract you from the real problem. If your child insists he’s failing because his teacher doesn’t like him, don’t waste time arguing about whether the teacher actually likes him. Instead focus on what he’s going to do to improve his grades.
- Looking for warning signs of a victim mentality
- Going after the good
- Replacing BLUE thoughts with true thoughts
- Giving your child two options
- Focusing on what your child can control
- Looking for the silver lining
- Giving your child unstructured playtime
- Teaching your child healthy ways to get attention
What’s Not Helpful
- Feeling sorry for your child
- Attending your child’s pity parties
- Rewarding your child for being a victim
- Minimizing your child’s feelings
- Pointing out the negative more than the positive
- Underestimating your child’s capabilities
Is Parenting Guilt Getting the Best of You?
Feeling guilty after you’ve done something hurtful is a good sign. But many parents carry around excessive guilt. Take stock of the way you handle guilt and consider whether any of the following statements sound familiar:
- I have trouble saying no to my child because I feel guilty.
- I regularly beat myself up for not being as good of a parent as I think I should be.
- Watching other parents causes me to think I should be doing more for my child.
- I frequently spend a lot of time thinking about mistakes I’ve made as a parent.
- Even though I can’t specifically identify why, I’m convinced I’m somehow going to mess up my child for life.
- I feel guilty over things I have no control over.
- I sometimes give my child extra things because I feel guilty.
- I give in when my child says things like “But all the other kids get to have one!”
- No matter how much time I spend with my child, I feel like it’s never enough.
- I think if I feel guilty, it must be because I’m doing something wrong.
Why Parents Feel Guilty
Joe convinced himself that denying his son food was wrong. He thought if he said no when Micah was hungry, he would cause him to suffer.
Like Joe, many parents exchange short-term discomfort for long-term pain, even when it’s at their child’s expense. Micah was the one who was going to suffer long-term health problems, but allowing him to overeat relieved Joe of his immediate guilt. Joe felt guilty that Micah was at risk of serious health issues but he felt even worse when he denied Micah a second helping.
While you might not see such dire consequences stemming from parenting out of guilt, it’s likely that your feelings of guilt sometimes shape your parenting practices. Consider how these feelings can lead to unhealthy behavior.
Types of Parental Guilt
There are three main types of guilt parents experience:
1. Appropriate guilt
A guilty conscience can be a good thing. Feelings of remorse may signal that your actions aren’t in line with your values, which could motivate you to create positive change.
Feeling guilty after yelling at your children could be a wake-up call that you need to find a new way to discipline them. Or feeling bad after you lose your temper might be a sign you need to reduce your stress level. Either way, that uncomfortable guilty feeling may prompt you to repair the relationship and change your behavior.
2. Unnecessary guilt
One day you might say, “It was such a nice day today. I should have played outside with the kids.” But then, the next day, you find yourself saying, “I shouldn’t have stayed outside so long with the kids. They were hot and now they’re itchy from all those bug bites.”
Even though your behavior isn’t actually harmful, you might convince yourself that you let your child down. But in reality, your actions aren’t damaging your child’s health or your relationship in any way.
3. Chronic guilt
Perhaps you feel guilty all the time, without a clear reason why. Maybe you assume you’re doing something that will scar your child for life or maybe you worry that you’re just not doing enough to prepare your child for the future.
Whenever your child struggles, you might draw sweeping conclusions that link his “inadequacies” to your parental failures. You might also make negative predictions about how your present choices will cause your child problems later in life.
Excessive Guilt Stems from Incorrect Beliefs
While many parents experience guilt, working mothers seem to be the most susceptible to it. In a survey by BabyCenter, a whopping 94 percent of moms reported feeling mommy guilt.
In the decades since it became commonplace for mothers to enter the workforce, many working moms feel torn as they strive to find the “perfect” work-life balance. While some working parents claim you really can “have it all,” most mothers have discovered limits to their superhuman abilities. Any mothers who strive to climb the corporate ladder while keeping their hat in the ring for “mother of the year” will likely feel as though they fall short somehow.
Mommy guilt seems to stem from the romanticized notion that before mothers entered the workforce, stay-at-home moms were all like June Cleaver. They made home-cooked meals, kept a neat house, and spent copious amounts of time with their children every day.
But in reality, studies show that since 1985, the number of hours parents spend with their children each week has been on the rise. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family reports American parents spend more time with their children than any other parents in the developed world. Yet there’s still this idea that parents should devote even more time to their kids.
Another study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, this one in 2015, found that the quantity of time you spend with your child doesn’t really matter all that much. Researchers discovered that the time mothers spent with their child had no effect on behavior, emotions, academics, or overall well-being.
There was one exception—adolescence. When mothers spent more time with a teen, fewer delinquent behaviors were reported. But that’s it. It didn’t matter whether the mother had been a stay-at-home mom for fifteen years or whether she’d been a working parent all her child’s life.
And oddly, the time when kids reach adolescence is precisely the time that many mothers enter the workforce. After all, the kids are finally old enough to start fending for themselves. But research shows the teenage years are the critical time period when kids actually do need to spend more time with their parents.
That’s not to say that time with children isn’t important—clearly, it’s an integral part of healthy development. But the quality rather than the quantity of time is what matters most.
Being a stay-at-home mom doesn’t absolve parents from guilt, however. I’ve seen plenty of mothers in my therapy office who feel guilty that they don’t love every minute of being a stay-at-home parent. And I’ve seen work-at-home moms who get a double dose of guilt—they feel bad they aren’t at the office and feel guilty that they aren’t able to play with their kids all day.
Social Comparisons Cause You to Feel Inadequate
It’s easy to judge how you’re doing as a parent by drawing social comparisons. When you scroll through Facebook you’re likely to see plenty of people who look as though they should be nominated for parent of the year. Fun family vacations, extravagant birthday parties, beautifully decorated nurseries, and parents who make it all look easy.
And it’s not just social media. Maybe you overheard your neighbor say she signed her son up for a soccer clinic and you start to think, “Should I have done that?” Or you drop your child off at a birthday party that makes your child’s last celebration look incredibly lame and you think, “My child deserves better than what I give her.”
Of course, marketers know how to prey on your guilt as well. Whether it’s a product that will teach your child to read at the age of three, or it’s the latest toy that will give your child endless hours of fun, companies send the message that your child not only deserves it, but needs it to be truly happy.
To keep up with the Joneses, parents are buying more gifts than they can afford. A survey conducted by Parenting magazine found that 76 percent of parents spoil their children during the holidays because they want to ensure their child won’t be disappointed, because if she’s disappointed, they’d feel guilty.
But don’t think having more money to buy your child more stuff will automatically alleviate your guilt. In a recent PBS special, singer and actress Jennifer Lopez talked about the mommy guilt she experiences. Despite her estimated net worth of over $300 million, and an entire staff to help her care for her children, she said she often feels like she’s not doing enough for her kids. So rest assured, even if you did have everything at your disposal, you’d likely still feel some sense of guilt.
Parenting out of Guilt Sends an Unhealthy Message
Guilt is an uncomfortable emotion that can be hard to tolerate. Quite often, it’s tempting to take drastic measures to rid yourself of it.
In Joe’s case, he gave in to his son’s demands to gain some temporary relief from his guilt. But ultimately, it caused more long-term problems.
Guilt can also cloud your judgment. And if you’re parenting your child out of guilt, you’ll struggle to make the best parenting choices.
Guilt Can Keep You Stuck in a Pattern of Bad Habits
Feelings of guilt can influence your behavior. You might be tempted to do things that will relieve your guilty conscience, even when it’s not in your child’s best interest.
Here’s what parents do when they parent out of guilt:
- Fend off guilt—In an attempt to ward off that uncomfortable guilty feeling, you might take drastic steps to avoid anything that could cause you to feel like a “bad” parent. So perhaps you deny yourself time alone because you’d feel guilty taking a break. Or maybe you don’t buy things for yourself because you’d feel bad not spending that money on the kids.
- Alleviate guilt—Sometimes parents alleviate their guilt by giving in to their kids’ requests—such as Joe did with his son Micah. When your child cries or insists you’re the meanest parent in the world, it can be tempting to give him what he wants. Even if it isn’t in his best interest, giving in helps you feel better—at least temporarily.
- Overcompensate for guilt—A parent who feels guilty for yelling at her child earlier in the day may allow him to stay up late. Or a parent who feels guilty because he got divorced may allow his kids to do whatever they want during his weekend visitations. Even though those actions don’t mitigate the problem, they might ease a parent’s guilty conscience.
Giving in to Guilt Trips Sends the Wrong Message
If you say, “Oh, fine, go ahead!” after your child gives you the puppy-dog face, or you agree to loan money to a relative who insists, “Good families help each other,” you are teaching your child she should succumb to guilt trips as well.
Also, giving in after your child whines, begs, or sticks out his bottom lip makes him question your decision-making abilities. Kids need consistency and an authority figure who can keep them safe.
If you change your mind to relieve the guilt you felt for saying no, your child may become anxious as he sees that you’re a bit wishy-washy when it comes to decisions. Although kids appear as though they want you to give in, doing so undermines their overall confidence in you. Your child wants to see that you’re a strong leader who can withstand the pressure to give in when the going gets tough.
Kids learn how to pour on the guilt as well. While one parent may give in to a child who says, “But I haven’t seen you all day!” the other one might be more likely to back down when she hears, “But all the other kids do that!” You certainly don’t want your child to learn to manipulate people with guilt trips.
What to Do Instead
In Joe’s case, he had to learn to tolerate feeling guilty when he said no. And he had to see that feeling guilty didn’t necessarily mean he was doing anything wrong. In fact, in his situation, feeling guilty meant he was setting limits with his son.
I’ve worked with many parents who say things like “I let my kids play way too many video games,” or “I don’t spend nearly enough time with my kids.” But they aren’t sure whether the solution is to change their behavior or change their emotions. Acknowledge the reasons for your guilt and notice how it affects your behavior. Then, you can decide what action to take.
Change Your Behavior When Guilt Is Warranted
To determine whether your guilt is justified, ask yourself these four questions:
- Did I do something that negatively affected my child? Perhaps you’ve become too relaxed with screen time and your child is spending most of his time watching TV. Or maybe you overreacted out of anger and said something you shouldn’t have. If your actions are harmful, change your behavior.
- Is there something I can change? If you feel guilty because you got divorced three years ago, you can’t go back in time to change it. But if you’re feeling guilty because you aren’t encouraging your child to do his homework, you can rectify the problem.
- What can I do differently? Identify one small step you can take to become a better parent. Create a specific plan that will help you change your habits. So instead of scrolling through your phone while you’re spending time with your child, commit to giving her your undivided attention. Or rather than eat dinner in front of the TV, create a rule that says no electronics during meals.
- Is there something I should do to make amends with my child? While you don’t need to apologize to a three-year-old for being stressed out, make amends when it is appropriate to do so. Say, “I am sorry I yelled at you. I was angry and I should have found a better way to handle my anger.” Show your child how to make reparations after you’ve made a mistake.
If you can’t change your behavior (like quitting your job to become a stay-at-home parent), try changing the way you think about guilt. Beating yourself up or convincing yourself that you’re doing damage (even when there isn’t any evidence) isn’t helpful.
Stop Making Catastrophic Predictions
Just because you feel bad doesn’t mean you’ve actually done anything wrong. Yet many parents predict one small thing they do today will somehow prevent their child from reaching her greatest potential down the road. But there’s a good chance your assumptions about the impact your parenting has on your child aren’t accurate.
Here’s a scenario:
A mother forgets to sign her ten-year-old up for baseball camp. She starts thinking things like “I am such a disorganized parent. I don’t get him involved in enough activities. All of his friends are going to camp together, where they’ll create lifelong memories and my son is going to be left out. All the other kids are going to improve their skills, and my child probably won’t make the baseball team next year.”
This parent predicts her child is going to become a social outcast who will never be able to play baseball because he missed out on one week of baseball camp. She might spend the rest of her life believing her disorganization prevented her son from making the major leagues.
Rest assured, I’ve yet to have an adult enter my therapy office because he didn’t get to go to summer camp. I’m much more likely to see people who say, “My parents were so stressed out all the time because they were afraid of being ‘bad’ parents that we never had any fun.”
I once worked with a mother who strongly believed that all good mothers always had clean houses. So she spent the majority of her time cleaning carpets, scrubbing floors, and washing windows. She refused to let her kids use art supplies and she never allowed them to have friends over because she was afraid they’d mess up the house. Ironically, her desire to be a “good mother” with a clean house prevented her from having time to play with her kids.
So while a cluttered house or unswept floor weren’t likely to scar her children, her stress about the cleanliness of the house left an unhealthy impression on them.
You have no way to predict how some of your child’s experiences might shape her—or how she’ll even look back on them when she’s an adult. When she’s thirty, she might not even remember that incident you thought would scar her for life.
I have a friend who describes her childhood as a wonderful experience. She speaks highly of both of her parents and talks about the great effort they put into cooperating with one another after they got divorced.
But if you talked to her brother, you’d swear they were raised by different people. He describes their parents as selfish and he recalls their divorce as a turning point in his childhood—saying that he had to grow up too fast as a result.
Two kids enduring the same situation may have very different experiences. Of course, they may perceive situations quite differently depending on their ages, but you just never know how it will affect them. So before you conclude you’ve damaged your child, remember, your predictions might not be accurate.
Refuse to Draw Inaccurate Conclusions
Connecting the dots between cause and effect helps us make sense of certain situations. After all, that’s the lesson we try to teach kids, right? You threw the ball, so it’s your fault the vase broke. Or, you hit your sister, so it’s your fault she’s crying.
But sometimes we leap to conclusions even when there isn’t any proof because we feel as though we need some sort of explanation. And quite often that conclusion isn’t accurate.
I once met a mother who was convinced her child’s learning problems stemmed from the fact that she drank a few cups of coffee during her pregnancy. “Sometimes, I just needed a little pick-me-up because I was so tired all the time. I knew it was wrong to have caffeine but I did it anyway,” she said.
I’ve worked with many mothers who were convinced something they consumed (or didn’t consume) or something they were exposed to during pregnancy explained the problems in their children’s lives. I had to assure one mother that the one glass of wine she drank before she learned she was pregnant probably didn’t cause ADHD and had to convince another mother that the nonorganic vegetables her child ate as a toddler didn’t cause his anxiety.
While it is important to be healthy during pregnancy and throughout your child’s life, there are studies that show it might not be as life-altering as some parents predict. A 2011 study published in the journal Neurotoxicology and Teratology found that babies born addicted to crack cocaine end up doing just as well in life as babies who weren’t born addicted to drugs. So if crack doesn’t harm your child’s chances at lifelong success, it’s unlikely your insatiable appetite for salmon during pregnancy is the sole reason he’s not an honor student.
Consider the types of conclusions you’ve drawn to explain something in your parenting life and ask yourself if it’s possible there might be some alternative answers. If you blame yourself excessively for something, be open to the possibility that it might not be your fault. It might be time to start changing the story you tell yourself.
Forgive Yourself for the Mistakes You Make
Gabrielle had only stepped out of the room for a minute when her curious three-year-old son, Tyson, peered over the kitchen counter. He couldn’t quite see what was up there, so he grabbed the electrical cord to the crock pot in an attempt to pull himself up. The Crock-Pot slid off the counter and spilled boiling hot soup onto the little boy.
Tyson spent the next several weeks in the hospital getting treatment for the burns that covered much of his body. And although he recovered from his injuries, he would always have scars on his arms and face.
Gabrielle started therapy a few months after the accident. And when we met for her first session she said, “Every time I look at the scars on his face I feel so bad that I let that happen to him. I’ll never be able to forgive myself.”
In fact, Gabrielle was convinced she shouldn’t forgive herself. She thought she didn’t deserve to be happy and feeling guilty was her penance. The only reason she came to therapy was to help make sure she didn’t make such a “stupid mistake” again.
It took a long time for Gabrielle to acknowledge that what happened to her son was an accident. And accidents can’t always be prevented.
She had to see how beating herself up every day wasn’t healthy for her son. He needed an emotionally present mother who loved herself.
Over the course of several months, Gabrielle was able to acknowledge that the accident didn’t serve as evidence that she was a bad parent. She was a kind and loving mother.
Slowly but surely, she was able to let go of some of her guilt by changing the way she thought about the accident. Rather than punish herself for what happened, she focused on enjoying the time she had with her son and she tried to prevent the same thing from happening to other families.
A little guilt isn’t a bad thing. But convincing yourself you’re a bad person or a horrible parent does more damage than good. Don’t allow self-condemnation to get in the way of becoming the best parent you can be.
Strive to Be Good Enough
Earlier today, I stumbled across an Internet meme that said, “Good enough is never good enough.” And while it wasn’t specifically referring to parenting, I think that’s the attitude many modern-day parents have adopted.
But being a “good enough” parent actually could be the best thing for your child, at least according to research conducted by the late D. W. Winnicott, a pediatrician and psychoanalyst. He interacted with thousands of mothers and their children and he concluded, “To be a good mother is to be a good enough mother.” Later, the conclusion was expanded to include fathers.
Winnicott recognized that good enough mothers felt conflicted about being selfless and self-interested. They were dedicated to their child, yet still experienced resentment. They made plenty of mistakes, yet through their imperfect and human ways, good enough mothers raised healthy and resilient children.
It definitely makes sense when you think about it. After all, let’s imagine you were the “perfect” parent—whatever that means. You did everything “right” all the time.
What would happen to your child when he becomes an adult? He’d struggle to survive in an imperfect world filled with human beings who make mistakes. There will be times when his future partner, his boss, and his neighbors fail him. He needs to know how to deal with disappointment, hurt feelings, and imperfect people.
Each parenting mistake you make is an opportunity for your child to build mental strength. That doesn’t mean you should go out of your way to speed up his strength-building process, but it does mean you can give him real-life learning experiences through your own failures.
So don’t beat yourself up for not being a perfect parent. Because even if you were perfect, you wouldn’t be doing your child any favors. Instead give yourself permission to be a good enough parent, flaws and all.
Just like you love your child even though she’s imperfect, your child will love you for being a good enough parent. She’ll appreciate your efforts, and someday she’ll recognize the sacrifices you made to raise her to become a responsible adult.
How to Teach Kids About Guilt
Whenever Micah begged Joe for a snack and Joe gave in, he was teaching Micah that guilt was intolerable. It was an unhealthy message and he needed to teach him that guilty feelings didn’t have to dictate his behavior.
If your child breaks someone’s toy or says something mean, you want him to feel guilt. The lack of a conscience could be a sign he’s a psychopath.
But on the opposite end of the spectrum, you also don’t want a child who feels guilty all the time. A child who apologizes for everything or who blames himself unnecessarily may be more susceptible to mental health problems, like anxiety and depression.
Tell Your Child to Listen to His Shoulder Angel
Do you remember watching cartoons that depicted a character with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other? The shoulder devil tries to convince the character to make bad choices while the shoulder angel tries to convince him to do what’s right. If you ever took Psychology 101, you might recall this as Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality.
Talk to your child about how everyone experiences times when one part of their brain says to break the rules and the other part says to do the right thing. If he’s never seen a cartoon with the devil and the angel on each shoulder, a quick online search can help you find an example.
Explain the importance of listening to his shoulder angel (which is really his conscience). Here’s a sample dialogue:
Parent: Have you ever seen a cartoon character who has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other and they’re both telling the character to do something different?
Parent: Well, that’s sort of what happens in real life. Although we don’t see an actual devil and a real angel, part of our brains tells us it’s okay to break the rules or hurt someone’s feelings. But the other part of our brains says, “No, don’t do that! It’s wrong!” Does that ever happen to you?
Child: Yes. When you told me I couldn’t eat a cookie, part of my brain said, “Just take one anyway!”
Parent: That sounds like something the shoulder devil would say. What did your shoulder angel say?
Child: He said, “No, don’t do it! You have to listen to your mother.”
Parent: So you listened to your shoulder angel?
Parent: Good work! It’s important to listen to your shoulder angel as much as you can.
Talk about the potential consequences of not listening to the shoulder angel. Making bad choices can hurt other people’s feelings or can damage relationships. It’s also likely to cause your child to feel guilt.
Point out that guilty feelings can serve as a reminder that you made a bad choice. And sometimes that means you have to take steps to make reparations. But make sure your child knows that an apology or an attempt to make amends won’t undo the fact that he made a mistake.
Instill Guilt Not Shame
I used to work at a junior high school and many of the kids referred to therapy were the ones who got sent to the principal’s office on a regular basis. One particular day, the school called a meeting to discuss a twelve-year-old boy whose behavior was out of control.
His mother took the afternoon off from work to attend. Her embarrassment and frustration were evident as she listened to the teachers go around the table, one by one, explaining all of his bad behaviors. She apologized repeatedly for her son’s outbursts and defiance.
The boy was invited to join the last few minutes of the meeting so the teachers could explain the newest disciplinary plan. As soon as he walked through the door, his mother started in.
“How could you do this to me? You’ve turned into such a bad kid! Look at what you’ve done. I’ve had to sit around for an hour listening to your poor teachers talk about how bad you are.” She went on for at least five minutes and it was clear she felt guilty that her son wasn’t exactly a model citizen. And she was trying to shame him for his misbehavior.
But shaming kids doesn’t motivate them to change. It causes kids to believe they possess character flaws that render them incapable of behaving. A child who believes “I’m bad” will likely fulfill that label and he won’t be motivated to make good choices.
It’s easy to confuse shame and guilt. In fact, many researchers struggle to agree on a clear definition between the two. Here are three ways to distinguish the two emotions:
- Guilt involves feeling bad about a behavior. Feeling bad about what you did indicates guilt. Feeling bad about who you are constitutes shame. Thinking, “I shouldn’t have made that mean comment,” is guilt. Thinking, “I’m such a horrible person for saying that,” is shame.
- Guilt is usually private. Guilt is usually a private emotion, but shame tends to involve public knowledge of what you did. So while you might feel guilty for cheating on a test, you might experience shame if all of your friends and family condemn you for it.
- Guilt stems from not doing the right thing. Guilt occurs when you fail to make a good choice. Shame usually stems from doing something wrong and it often involves breaking a moral code. So you might feel guilty if you don’t help your friend move, but you are more likely to experience shame if you stole something from your friend.
While it’s helpful to ensure your child develops a healthy amount of guilt, avoid shaming your child. Children who experience shame struggle to feel good about who they are, and they often give up trying to make healthy choices.
Kids Who Understand Guilt Become Adults Who Set Healthy Boundaries
Imagine your twelve-year-old’s friend asks to copy his homework. When your child declines, his friend says, “If you were really a good friend you’d help me out.” Would you want your child to give in to that type of guilt trip?
Or what if your teenage daughter goes on a date with a boy who says, “If you loved me, you’d have sex with me?” Would you want her to give in because he guilted her into it?
Your child learns how to deal with guilt by watching you. If you succumb to guilt trips, he’ll do the same. Refusing to give in, working to make amends, and tolerating healthy guilt will help your child develop a moral compass. He’ll learn to recognize that he can tolerate guilt trips from others and he can deal with difficult emotions, like guilt, in a healthy manner.
Mentally strong people don’t try to please everyone. Instead they’re able to make healthy decisions, even when others disagree with their choices. When you refuse to parent out of guilt, you’ll show your child that guilty feelings don’t have to lead to unproductive behavior or unhealthy shame.
He’ll grow up knowing that he can set healthy limits with other people. Whether he says no to a peer who tries to pressure him into underage drinking or he refuses to be treated like a doormat at the office, he’ll recognize that his job isn’t to make other people happy.
Troubleshooting and Common Traps
Forcing your child to apologize usually isn’t a good idea. If your child walks up to someone and says, “Sorry,” but he doesn’t mean it, he won’t actually be doing anything to relieve his guilt or make amends. So rather than force an apology, focus on role-modeling apologies. Then, when your child is old enough to understand what it means to genuinely say “I’m sorry,” he’ll be more likely to offer a sincere apology.
Unfortunately, many kids run around saying, “I’m sorry,” with no intention of changing their behavior. Teach your child that apologies are only meaningful when she is intent on trying to change her behavior.
Be careful not to fall into the trap of trying to alleviate your child’s guilt too soon. Saying, “Oh, that’s okay that you broke that lamp,” might cause your child to think her behavior wasn’t a big deal. Make sure she knows that her behavior hurts other people. It’s healthy for her to experience some level of guilt because that guilt can lead to positive behavior change.
Be on the lookout for excessive guilt in young children, however. Quite often, they experience magical thinking, where they believe they have the power to control certain things that happen in the universe. Sometimes this way of thinking leads to excessive self-blame when something bad happens.
A child who says, “I hate my brother!” might feel it’s his fault when his brother gets hurt. Or one who dislikes having to help care for his dog might believe he’s at fault if the dog gets hit by a car. If you see signs of unnecessary guilt, reassure your child that he had nothing to do with those types of outcomes.
- Evaluating whether your guilt is warranted
- Striving to be good enough
- Refusing to go on guilt trips
- Practicing self-forgiveness
- Teaching your child to make amends
- Sticking to your limits even when your child tries to guilt you into changing your mind
- Encouraging your child to listen to his shoulder angel
- Role-modeling how to apologize
What’s Not Helpful
- Aiming to be a perfect parent
- Comparing yourself to other parents
- Punishing yourself for your mistakes
- Assuming your feelings of guilt must mean you did something wrong
- Giving in to alleviate your guilt, even when it’s not in your child’s best interest
- Shaming your child for his misbehavior