Being a mother or father is a balance of taking care of your kids and letting them grow up and learn from their mistakes.
Your role of simply loving and protecting your baby from pain and discomfort changes to one of accepting that your child or teen will need to experience natural consequences for their actions.
The hard part—for them and us—is that these consequences almost always include some discomfort, disappointment, and pain.
“It’s helpful to allow your child to struggle. Change happens out of struggle and in moments of accepting responsibility for our actions.”
Watching my child struggle without stepping in to fix things for him was one of the hardest parenting challenges I’ve personally experienced as a mom, even though I knew it was the best thing for him.
Parents face many challenges. And as we all find out, there are many, many challenges that we never expected or knew about before having children! As a mom and therapist of 30 years, I’ve found the following five the most difficult.
Often, we try to parent our kids based on who we think they should be instead of who they are. It can be tough and exhausting to have a child with ADHD or a teen with ODD who’s defiant and disrespectful. Or you might simply have a child who’s very different from you. Trying to see their side of things becomes a constant, draining battle.
You might think, “Hey, this isn’t what I signed up for! Is this what motherhood is supposed to be like?”
As a mom and therapist, I know that real grief can emerge when you realize that your child is not who you thought they would be. You might have to give up certain dreams you had for your child’s future when you realize they’re not going to take the path you’d hoped they would.
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Understand, though, that once you let go and accept who your child is, a different kind of love can develop. You’ll be able to see them clearly for the person they truly are.
I have found that true acceptance is one of the most powerful, loving things a parent can give to their child. It’s the basis for so many things, including being able to develop and communicate reasonable expectations for appropriate behavior. Old power struggles fall away, which can give you space to nurture new aspects of your relationship.
As a bonus, when you accept your child for who they are, they can become better at accepting themselves.
In general, it’s not a good idea to try to protect your child from experiencing the consequences of their actions. How will your child learn from their poor choices if you take away the natural consequences of those choices?
We humans learn through trial and error. It is often the best way to learn. We speed, we get a ticket, and we eventually stop speeding.
Your child can’t learn this way if you put up a protective fence around them and try to fix things for them. As my husband, James Lehman, said, “It’s helpful to allow your child to struggle. Change happens out of struggle and in moments of accepting responsibility for our actions.”
It’s our job as parents to help our kids through these difficult times, but it’s not our job to bear all their burdens for them. This may mean letting your child feel pain and disappointment.
You can help them by talking about how they can handle themselves differently next time and teaching them some good coping strategies. By simply letting your child know you’re there for them because you love them, you’re giving them one of the most important things a parent can ever give.
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If you have a child who acts out and engages in other challenging behaviors—tantrums, yelling, disobeying you, or being annoying and obnoxious—you’ve probably gotten “the look” from friends and strangers alike. You know the one—it says, “What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you doing something about your child’s behavior?!”
That look can make you feel like a terrible parent, even if you know you’re doing everything you can to raise your child the best you know how. And the truth is, others will probably judge you—it’s human nature.
If you’re in this situation, it’s natural to worry about your child disappointing or embarrassing you. It is also natural to worry about how others will react to your child’s misbehavior and blame you.
But when your child is acting out, and you’re feeling judged by others, stop and say to yourself:
“I can’t read other people’s minds.”
Indeed, if you try to imagine what others are thinking, 95 percent of the time, you’re going to read something negative. That’s because whenever we’re negative, we interpret other people’s perceptions of us as negative, too. And in these situations, we don’t read people’s minds in search of hope. We read them in search of criticism—especially when something is going wrong.
So when you feel yourself trying to guess what your neighbor, your mother-in-law, or your friends are thinking, tell yourself:
“I’m not a mind-reader; I don’t know what they’re thinking.”
Stop the tape that’s playing in your head and move on. This is also part of the process of learning how to engage in “positive self-talk,” or talking to yourself in a way that promotes calmness and hope, rather than panic.
Related content: Ashamed of Your Kid’s Behavior? How to Cope with Judgment
One of the hardest things parents face is when their child is mean, rude, or disrespectful. Your child may have always been this way. Or the change in their personality might have seemingly happened overnight—perhaps when they hit the pre-teen years. One day your 10-year-old loves being with you. The next day they’re screaming, “I hate you,” calling you names, and refusing to go anywhere with you.
The words “I hate you” can have the power to reduce any parent to tears or anger. It can make you feel like you’ve failed and wonder where you went wrong.
Kids know that saying these words can paralyze a parent during a fight, which is why they use this tactic to get what they want.
As hard as it is, try not to personalize your child’s behavior, even when they say that they hate you. When you personalize things, it makes it very hard to be objective about how to respond to your child in the moment.
A good thing to do when this happens is to stop, breathe, and respond with something like the following:
“We’re not talking about that right now. We’re talking about the fact that you need to do your homework.”
You can also ask yourself:
“What does my child need from me right now?”
It might be some space. Or it might be for you to follow through on a consequence you issued. But remember, try not to take these words from your kids personally.
During your child’s pre-adolescent and adolescent years, you are constantly confronted with the challenge of letting go. This is especially difficult if your kid seems to need to learn things the hard way.
A natural part of adolescence is risk-taking — which often results in rule-breaking and inappropriate behavior. It becomes extremely important as a parent to be able to disconnect from your emotional response to this misbehavior.
Emotional responses include feeling guilty, embarrassed, ashamed, or disappointed. As parents, when our kids get older, we need to pull back a bit and become coaches and teachers while we let our kids begin to play the game of life. We still love our children as people, but we need to give them space to learn, space for trial and error.
As painful as it is to accept sometimes, our children are born to move away from us. There is a sense of grief that goes along with this. I’ve experienced it myself. It’s important to remember that this work of caring for our children while they are constantly separating from us and becoming individuals can be stressful, demanding, and confusing.
One final word. It’s difficult for parents to figure out what is right. And the truth is, there isn’t a right answer all the time. It’s important to accept that there are choices to make and that choices often come with anxiety.
Remember that you are doing the best you can and that you won’t be perfect. More important than trying to be a perfect parent is to be a “good enough” parent. A “good enough” parent takes care of their child and tries their best. Hard situations are part of life – but these situations can help us learn and grow.
You can’t protect your children from everything bad that might happen to them. Or from the poor choices they may make. But you can help them learn from the bad situations they get themselves into.
Your child will likely not thank you now for letting them struggle on their own and suffer through a consequence, but they may surprise you when they’re an adult by telling you that your coaching, teaching, or limit setting made a positive difference in their life.
Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.