I want to reach out and invite you to talk about something we often don’t bring up with others—the hard times we all experience as parents. The moments when you were at the end of your rope, when your child was pushing all your buttons and you didn’t know what to do. Maybe your youngest child tantrums every time he hears the word “no.” Or your nine-year-old daughter gives you a hard time each day about going to school, or refuses to go to bed nightly. Maybe your 12-year-old is challenging you at every turn, telling you she won’t follow your rules and that she “doesn’t care” about the consequences you set. Perhaps your teenager has been acting out and staying out until all hours. You’re worried that he won’t pass all his classes this year—let alone finish high school. These are lonely, difficult moments, and let’s face it: it can be hard to talk about them with others.
I want to first start by saying that none of us is perfect, and no one is a perfect parent. In fact, rather than talking about “good parents” versus “bad parents,” I like to think of it in terms of “the good enough parent.” “Good enough” parents provide for their children and try their best to keep their kids safe. They are trying to raise their children the best they can, even if their methods aren’t always effective. If you’re aiming to be a better parent and thinking about ways to improve in certain areas, that’s a big part of “good enough parenting.”
We all feel ineffective with our kids at times, but believe it or not, getting through those tough periods in our lives can be the most meaningful thing that we do as parents—and can actually lead to stronger connections with your child. Understand that parenting is all about the ups and downs—not just the good stuff. And through those ups and downs, there is learning and growing together. You won’t hear your child say, “Oh gee Mom, you’re a great parent for saying ‘no.’ Thank you for holding firm on those limits!” You may hear it from your kids as they get to be young adults. It may not happen in a predictable way and it probably won’t be on your timetable, but trust me, you will hear something like that from your kids eventually. So keep trying your best as a parent—don’t give up, even if you don’t think you’re making a difference yet.
Realize also that change takes time. Parents sometimes feel like they should be able to prevent problems and create change instantly. Change is usually a process, not a single action. Sometimes kids need to play out an inappropriate behavior and keep dealing with the consequences until they’re ready for change, even though it’s painful for us to watch as parents.
It’s important also to look for glimmers of improvement in your child’s behavior, or even in your own reactions to it. Let’s say you put some new limits in place recently—maybe your child is going to bed on time, but still sasses you as he walks up the stairs. It’s often easier to focus on the negative or annoying behavior and miss those hopeful glimmers of improvement. When I worked in residential treatment with teens, we worked constantly on setting limits with our kids. Whenever I would see a child follow through on a limit, even if they were calling me names as they did it, I knew I had them—and that I was making a difference. Again, it’s so important to look for those compliant behaviors, because they will let you know you’re on the right road.
It’s also important to let your child be accountable for his or her own behavior—the good and the bad. It feels wonderful when your kid does something good, but that’s not their purpose in life—to provide an ego boost. You can’t own their achievements any more than you can own the really awful things. They are out of your control. Remember, you’re there to guide and influence your child, teach and coach them, encourage and love them, and then set limits and give consequences when they make inappropriate choices.
Another thing that I can’t stress enough is the need for you to have some support, whether it’s one trusted friend or a group of parents who you meet once a week for coffee. Talk to your mate, a good friend, a school counselor, read articles in Empowering Parents. Look for a good sounding board. We all need people to support us and encourage us along the way. We can’t always remain confident and positive about everything when we’re working on changing tough behaviors in our kids. And we can’t always see the improvements we’re making, either. Sometimes we need another person to point that out to us. That’s why it’s so important to have some perspective and support from others. Someone more neutral and objective can observe us from a different place and say, “Look how far you’ve come! Your kid’s doing his homework without a fight now. You’re doing a great job.” Not seeing your own growth as a parent is not unlike the child who you haven’t noticed growing, but over whom your relative who visits every few months exclaims, “Look how tall he’s gotten!”
If you’re seeking perfection as a parent, that’s not realistic. But if you’re aiming to be a better mom or dad, that’s really good enough. It’s something that you may need to work on every day—and some days are better than others. Some days you really connect with your kids and it feels totally worth it; other days you feel like you’re back to square one. These are the highs and lows of parenting that we all experience; there is no such thing as a smooth ride with no bumps along the way.
If you’re reading this article on Empowering Parents and going online and seeking ways to make improvements in parenting, then you’re there—you’re looking for ways of doing the right thing, you’re being a good enough parent. Once you acknowledge that you make mistakes and your family isn’t perfect, it can be so liberating. Be real, be honest and open. Learn from your mistakes. This is how you will start changing from them. This is becoming a good enough parent.
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™.