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.
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.
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.
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.