Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Are You Being Held Hostage by the Parenting ShouldStorm?

3 steps to escape the stress and anxiety of trying to be a “perfect parent.”

Key points

  • Kids will not suffer if parents ignore the parenting shoulds they feel or face.
  • Parents are more effective if they pause to calm their nervous system before reacting to a child’s misery.
  • Perfectionistic parents make both children and parents anxious.
Kirk Cameron/Unsplash
Source: Kirk Cameron/Unsplash

We live in a culture that pushes children and judges parents. Everyone wants the best for their children, but how do you combat your own expectations and the criticism—real or imagined—that comes with the parenting territory these days? I asked Alison Escalante, a pediatrician and fellow Psychology Today contributor how parents can navigate the difficult terrain of being the parent a child needs when all around you parents are striving for their kids to do more and be more.

Q: Can you explain the ShouldStorm parents live in today?

A: The ShouldStorm is a term I coined for our high-pressure culture of criticism and anxiety that pushes perfectionistic parenting. Culture refers to a set of beliefs and behaviors that a group of people take for granted. It influences our friends, family, and neighbors; our online groups; and a huge body of parenting blogs, articles, and books. The ShouldStorm has an opinion on every little thing parents do, but it often contradicts itself. It tells parents what they should or should not do, and threatens that kids will suffer if parents don’t follow those shoulds to the letter. Then parents internalize the shoulds; the ShouldStorm lives in our heads and makes parents feel anxiety and shame. Parents end up approaching their kids from a position of frantic worry about getting it right.

Q: In your book, Sigh, See, Start: How to Be the Parent Your Child Needs in a World that Won’t Stop Pushing, you suggest a solution. Is it achievable for most parents?

A: That’s exactly why I wrote this book. As a pediatrician and a young mom, I spent years looking for a simple parenting approach because that was something I needed, too. I often found that because I was busy and overwhelmed I could not remember the more complicated parenting advice I had learned. The three-step "Sigh, See, Start" method is clear and easy to remember, and it’s something parents can use even in the heat of the moment. Just like we remember to “stop, drop, and roll” if our clothes are on fire, we can sigh, see, and start when parenting gets heated.

Q: What happens when a parent "Sighs," the first step toward freeing themself from the ShouldStorm?

A: Sighing is the quickest way I know to calm down our nervous systems. Because we breathe out slowly, sighing stimulates the vagus nerve in the autonomic nervous system, so we move out of fight or flight and into a calmer place. And that’s important, because the thinking parts of our brain actually turn off when we are upset and reacting, but sighing helps the nervous system turn our wiser decision-making brain back on.

Q: How do parents execute the “See” and “Start” steps in your approach?

A: See: Notice what’s going on. See your child. Are they happy? Are they close to tears? Are their fists balled in anger? See isn’t necessarily about physical vision. See is about observation: allowing ourselves to register what is happening without immediately trying to change it or apply a should. It’s a micro-moment of mindfulness that allows us to know our child rather than making it about what’s going on inside our heads.

Start: Then, and only then, start listening, and start thinking about what an appropriate reaction would be. Do they need a hug? Some space? Something else? One of my favorite ways to start is by doing nothing. I tend to be reactive, so learning to just give everyone a minute is very helpful. The key with start is that we begin to learn—so we are gathering information on what works or doesn’t work. It helps us notice when each child responds differently. It stops being about getting it right or being perfect, and parenting becomes a little more fun as we start to see it as trying things out. This way of seeing it all as learning shifts parents from anxiety to feeling confident about their growing skills.

Q: What do a parent and child miss when they succumb to the ShouldStorm and perfectionistic parenting?

It’s incredibly distracting to always be trying to get things right and worrying we failed as parents. By focusing on the shoulds, we let our culture take away our joy and interfere with what our kids need the most from us: genuine connection. "Sigh, See, Start" takes our focus off the shoulds and helps us be present with our kids, with openness and attention that helps them feel connected to us. It’s that sense of safety with us, of having a parent who is trying to know them; that is where the real power of parenting lies. Our goal as parents is to influence our kids toward a happy, healthy life, and it’s their sense of connection with us that makes that possible.

Copyright @2024 by Susan Newman, Ph.D.


Escalante, Alison. (2024). Sigh, See, Start: How to be the Parent Your Child Needs in a World that Won’t Stop Pushing. New York: Princeton Architectural Press/Chronicle Books.

Related: Avoiding the Perfect Mother Trap and How to Stop Competitive Parenting From Ruining Friendships

More from Susan Newman Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today