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A Message from Janet Lehman: Does Parenting Feel Like a Thankless Job? (Then Read This.)

by Janet Lehman, MSW
A Message from Janet Lehman: Does Parenting Feel Like a Thankless Job? (Then Read This.)

I was having coffee with a friend recently when she leaned across the table and said, “No matter what I do as a parent, I feel like I’m being taken for granted. All my child seems to do is yell at me, ignore me or ask me for things. I just feel so unappreciated.”

Let’s face it—parenting is often a thankless job. Before we have kids, most of us have unrealistic expectations of what it’s going to be like to give birth and become a parent. Maybe you watched family members raising their kids, or witnessed frazzled parents in the grocery store whose kids were acting out and thought to yourself, “I’ll never do it that way.” But as every parent eventually finds out, that ideal image we have pre-kids is not reality. It’s hard work to raise children, and most of us are simply trying to do our best.

If you are searching, longing and looking for appreciation from your child during the tough times, you’re really going in the wrong direction.

Related: How to stop feeling judged and blamed—and start parenting more effectively.

It’s not easy to set limits, give consequences, and stay consistent as a parent—and your child isn’t going to show appreciation to you for doing it. If you’re feeling taken for granted, remember that one of your main goals is to teach your child to be a responsible adult. And, as every parent knows, this is a tough and constant job. In some ways, kids are like little Neanderthals—they don’t come programmed knowing what’s right and wrong, or how to be thankful and appreciative of what’s given to them. We have to teach them how to behave appropriately in each situation. They rely on us to set limits, teach them and guide them. They may not always like it when we lay down the law or give consequences, but they ultimately do need those limits set—not only for their behavior, but because it makes them feel safer.

Their Thanks Will Come Later

When I was working in residential treatment centers with kids, I was one of the people who had to set limits on their behavior. I was often insulted, sworn at and challenged, especially in the first few months after a teen first arrived. At the end of their stay (usually a year-and-a-half to two years later), we would all do a group session prior to their discharge from the center. Some of the most hardcore kids I worked with would say, “I hated you when I first got here, but I’ve really grown to respect you. Now I understand what you had to do to help me change.” These kids had extreme experiences with crime, drugs and physical violence, and needed a therapeutic environment to help get them on track in their lives. With the help of the adults at the center, who acted as teachers, limit setters and coaches, they were often able to do so—and in the process, they began to understand the role of the adults in their lives.

I think this experience translates to the role parents play in their child’s life.  Most of the time you really can’t expect appreciation from your child, especially when you’re going through tough times with him, but when he matures, he may understand and appreciate what you’ve done for him.

Look at it this way: No one really likes to be told they need to behave differently. As an adult, you probably don’t like it if your boss wants you to change how you do your work—and you certainly won’t say “thank you” when he or she asks you to do things differently. The same holds true for your child. The less you personalize things and expect validation, the easier it becomes to do your job as a parent. It also is easier if you act in a businesslike way and separate yourself from your child’s response. You’re not going to get verbal appreciation for setting limits, but you will see good results in their improved behavior.

Related: How to give consequences that work for your child.

A Thankless Job: Parents of Kids with Behavior Problems

For parents of kids with ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder or other behavioral issues, it can be extremely exhausting and difficult to feel confident as a parent and keep going. Let’s say your child has problems with anger and impulsivity and gets in your face, swears and says terrible things like, “I hate you,” and “You’re the worst mother in the world.” Maybe he has a good side, but along with that comes an aggressive, mean, awful side. Imagine you’re trying to help your child with his homework but end up having a big fight, where he starts screaming at you and calling you names. This may be one of those moments when you say to yourself, “I don’t know if I can do it. I’ve done so much for this kid and all he does is treat me like garbage.” Know that we all—every one of us—have bad moments where we think, “This is really hard. I don’t know if I can do it.” If you’re trying your best, and your kid is still screaming in your face, it’s natural to feel exhausted, unappreciated and overwhelmed.

Related: Does your child scream at you and call you foul names?

If you are searching, longing and looking for appreciation from your child during the tough times, you’re really going in the wrong direction. You may feel lost and want to get some acknowledgement from him, but realize that he’s probably not able to give it. I understand why parents want and need validation, but I think you’re going to be in trouble as long as you’re looking to your kids in any way to fulfill this need.

Instead of looking to your child to receive appreciation for parenting, here are a few things you can do instead:

Take a time out: If you’re feeling upset, taken for granted and overwhelmed, try to take some time for yourself. Go for a walk or a drive and listen to music. Regroup and calm down.

Reach out: Reach out to a friend or family member— and here’s the important part—find someone who won’t judge you. Talk to someone who’s supportive, who can listen without laying blame, and who might even have had a good idea or two for you.

Acknowledge what you’re doing right. Congratulate yourself for what you are doing well—no matter how small that thing might be. Maybe you set a limit and stuck to it this week. Or perhaps you gave an effective consequence. The point is to acknowledge any instance when you did the right thing: “Today I gave my son an appropriate consequence and followed through.” Or “Today we made it to bedtime without a fight.” The very fact you are on EP reading our articles says that you’re taking active steps to be effective as a parent. You should feel good about that. So don’t beat yourself up over the mistakes you make—instead, celebrate the successes.

Find your sense of humor. As a parent, having a sense of humor really helps. When my son misbehaved, after we’d dealt with the incident, in private my husband James and I would sometimes laugh over what had transpired and just shake our heads. I also had friends I could call who would help me see the humor in these difficult situations. If you can laugh off some of the behavior and not take it too seriously, it relieves a lot of tension.

Find other parents who have been there: I always say that parents won’t get thanks from their kids, but that’s where Empowering Parents comes in. Other people who come to this site really do relate and often understand what you’re going through because they’re going through the same things with their own kids. You’ll notice that when you  leave a   response after an EP article, we answer you. Why? Because we understand. The EP.com community can and should be a support network for you. Other resources you might try are support groups, trusted friends or family members, parenting classes, programs like The Total Transformation and The Calm Parent, and parenting books. Don’t think that you’re all alone in this—there are many, many parents out there dealing with the same things that you’re grappling with right now.

And the truth is, we can feel so alone as we go through these challenges with our kids. Sometimes we’re harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else—we feel like we’re supposed to have all the answers. It’s important to cut yourself a little slack. It might feel like you’re always going to be in this horrible place with your child, but the reality is, kids change. I know it doesn’t feel like that in the moment your child is screaming in your face—it probably feels like this is your life forever, and it’s a horrible feeling. I know it’s tough. But remember that the goodness you and your family have given your child is there. He’ll be able to use those tools at another time, when he’s ready. Rest assured that whatever else is going on in his life, that knowledge will always be there.

If your kids aren’t able to thank you or appreciate you for setting limits during these tough times, know that you really are doing the right thing. It’s important to respect and appreciate yourself for that. Kids aren’t going to like it when you set limits and hold them accountable. But if you can use coaching, teaching and limit setting to guide them toward better behavior, you’re on the right track. No matter how much your child complains, know that you’re doing the right thing. When we’re setting limits, we’re doing our job as parents and we’re letting them know we love them. They may not like it, but they know it’s our job. Think of it this way: if your child’s behavior has improved or changed, it’s really a form of thanks to you for what you’ve done.


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Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of The Total Transformation Program. She is a social worker who has held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.

READER'S COMMENTS

great reaffirmation

Comment By : runner12

Wow, that hit the spot after our failed family meeting last night where we set some limits and got in response anger, emotion and just plain complaining to the enth degree! Thank you!

Comment By : dmeola

It so true.

Comment By : Slava

Your article 2day about parenting being a thankless job was spot on for me. I am a single mom with no support of any kind from my son's father. My son is 14 and every day is full of arguing and a battle of wills. I don't think either of us likes the other too much at this stage. Praying 4 strength equal 2 the day - your emails are encouraging. You sure cannot relate to these teen years until you are going thru them.

Comment By : Mo

I've read your articles for the past year and have to say you're right on! Each time a new article is posted I'm in awe with how I can apply it's contents with what I'm going through. You have "empowered" me as a mom and my teenage boys are benefitting. Thank you.

Comment By : Amy

Wonderful, wonderful article. Just what I needed to hear. Thank you :-)))) Love ya guys, glad I found you.

Comment By : Natasha

Thanks for the encouragement! I really needed to hear that after an eventful day yesterday. I was just praying for something positive to get me through today and your email came at the perfect time. Thanks for the reaffirmation that we are doing our best with our 14 y-o son. That it will get better...light at the end of the tunnel.

Comment By : Doing My BestTeen Mom

Thank you.

Comment By : ElorasMom

The right article at the right time. Many thanks.

Comment By : Denise

After spending the last week crying over the issues we are dealing with our 9 year old daughter (an only child), this article was exactly what I needed to read. It is so hard when you know that there is a loving, kind child in there somewhere but are struggling to help that child be present every day. Thank you!

Comment By : Stellasmom

Everything you said in this article is so encouraging. I am going through a divorce, and since I was the one who made the decision to file my 14 year old daughter is so angry at me. Of course she can't understand the reasons I have nor can I explain since there are things that would be inappropriate for her to know at this time. She is calling me names and telling me that I don't love her enough or I would stay with her father. She has said things to me that I never thought she would say. My son, who is 13, has ADHD so I can relate to that part of the article too, but he actually seems to be handling the divorce better. I am fearful of what he may be internalizing though. It is a very difficult time for all of us, but reading articles like yours give me hope for the future.

Comment By : Mom of two teens

Thank you. I was crying myself tonight after a rough one with abusive name calling, etc. I found myself fighting over brushing his teeth. uh! thank you for being out there, it has really helped me to put in into perspective...one day he will use the good things we are teaching him.

Comment By : Kat

Many thanks, I have been very despondent lately with my kids (almost 5 and 7 yrs old) calling me the "meanest mother in the world" and telling me that they wish I would die so they would just have my husband as he is "fun" - he works very long hours and travels so they only really see him on weekends when he devotes his time to them and IS fun. I am reasonably firm and try to set clear limits with consequences that are followed through on. I have been looking to my kids for validation and appreciation and your article has reminded me that this is the wrong place to go to for that!

Comment By : Sally

I needed that. I never thought I was one to look to my kids to validate me emotionally but have discovered that the opposite is true. And they can't do that for me - I have to do that myself. Remembering that they actually do love you - in the midst of their anger and frustration is hard and staying the course can be even harder. Thank you for the encouragement.

Comment By : Sybil\'s Mom

With Christmas coming in a few days and my 11 yr. old son and 13 yr. old daughter behaving so terribly I feel like I have no Christmas spirit left. This article was just what I needed to read and your tips will help get me through.

Comment By : Christine

thank you the article saved my life, i felt like i wanted to give up. my 19 yr old son is in collage he totaled out his car, won't look for a job , told me collage would be 3,000.00 after scholarships. it turned out to be 7,OOO.OO. I AM A SINGLE MOM NO Support from anyone. on disability income. i am going to have to quit sending money to him to live off. he does not appreciate anything i do. and i worry what is going to happen . he lives on campus eats on campus. i just can't support him anymore. i'am very scared..i am 60 yrs old. and have spent most of my savings on him.any suggestions. kay

Comment By : kay

Although this total transformation information is exremely helpful it's very hard to put it into practice with my 14 and 11 year old sons. Their father has a monopoly on their time and raising them and all they do is try to manipulate and control. They've been supposed to be with me this week and so far one has actually spent the night once and the other spent 1/2 a day and a couple hours the next day. Last night they called me and said that they don't want to go to their grandparents house for Christmas eve which they told them they would go. Today is going to be another tough day. I pray for God's guidance, courage, strength and wisdom on a daily basis. I think I may have to bring the authorities in on this one. My heart is sick, tired and broken. And, the stupid and/or hopeful thing is I get up every morning and still make contact with them even when they abuse and try to manipulate.

Comment By : Thread Hanger

Very timely. So, is gratitude teachable? How?

Comment By : mattsmom

Oh, how I wish this was true for me. May be it is true for some- my adult children have never recalled anything to be appreciative or thankful for and on the holidays they never miss an opportunity to point out all my failings to them. According to my oldest, now 31, she was running the household financially, driving cooking and making all the major decisions since she was five years old. Yes, they are our children. But unfortunately that does not make them good people. I resent the sacrifices that I made for people who departed from my moral,spiritual and ethical values and who allowed external influences to eclipse the standards that I enforced in my home. So sadly it is, largely a thankless task. There are indeed rewards without a doubt but the return on the investment is truly negligible. I recall an old song " I Wonder if I Love as Much as I Did Before?" and realize that the choice to be a parent is one of degree. I am genuinely sorry now that I put as much as I did into it,in retropect.

Comment By : glork

This is a great article. I have an easier time than my husband not taking our 3 teens behavior personally. I think I have an easier time sharing my struggles with other women than he does with his male friends. We also have an older daughter who had rough teen years and she is now 25 and turned out wonderful. I draw on that hope. I see I need to validate him more instead of criticize him then maybe he won't take their behavior so personally.

Comment By : Mother of 3 teens

I enjoy reading these articles because I have 2 teenage boys right now ages 14 and 16 and it's always nice to hear were not alone and most articles relate to at least one of my kids each and every time....however I have purchased your Total Transformation program and listened to it - very helpful but it never answers the question of what to do when your child doesn't follow through with the consequences we give?? my boys are bigger then me when I ground them they leave anyways...even if I get physical with them to try and keep them in - they laugh at how powerless I am??

Comment By : LK

* To ‘mattsmom’: You ask a tough question. James Lehman suggests that it’s most effective to focus on behavior rather than feelings. You can certainly role model ways to express gratitude, or talk with a child about ways to express gratitude, but you can’t make someone feel grateful.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* Hi ‘LK’: Many parents are concerned about finding effective consequences, much like yourself. When establishing consequences, it’s important to look at what you can control—the TV, the cell phone service, texting, computer access for example. If you have the type of child who will just take off, it won’t be effective to tell him he can’t go anywhere as a consequence, and we don’t recommend trying to use physical measures to get him to stay home. Instead, focus on other privileges such as the ones mentioned above and review lessons 3 and 6 where James talks about problem solving and task-oriented consequences. You might also want to check out this article for more information Kids Who Ignore Consequences: 10 Ways to Make Them Stick. Don’t forget you can contact the Parental Support Line for more personalized guidance using the phone number in your workbook. Good luck and take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* To kay: It sounds like you are in a tough situation with your son, where he may expect you to continue to support him financially, and you cannot go on with this. We recommend talking with him very frankly about your current financial situation and that you cannot continue to support him. Then, you can problem solve with him about how he will support himself (for example, cutting down on extras, getting a job, or talking with his school’s financial aid office about finding other funding for his education). He is likely to be upset with you over this; people do not like change when the current system is working for them. As mentioned in the article, your job as a parent is to help your son become a responsible adult; by setting limits and helping him problem solve, you are doing just that. I am including a link to an article series which recently appeared on EP about adult children:
Failure to Launch, Part 1: Why So Many Adult Kids Still Live with Their Parents
Failure to Launch, Part 2: How Adult Children Work the "Parent System"
Failure to Launch, Part 3: Six Steps to Help Your Adult Child Move Out
Good luck to you and your son as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

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Rating: 3.1/5 (110 votes cast)

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