Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Feeling Inconsistent As a Parent? Here's How To Fix That!

Do you feel erratic when parenting your challenging child? Here's the solution.

It’s challenging to parent a child with a diagnosis. Everything we know about parenting is kind of standing on its head. What works for neurotypical children just doesn’t work for our children. Parenting books about our children's diagnoses address the diagnosis, but don’t really focus on how to parent the self of the child within it. I firmly believe that diagnosed children- whatever the diagnosis – are superheroes in disguise. (Read more about how to hack your child’s diagnosis into a superpower here). It’s our job as their parents to help them utilize their superpowers.

TARGET is an acronym for the steps we need to accomplish this. The first “T” stands for theory. When we parent diagnosed children, it’s easy to feel all over the place. Suppose a diagnosed child has a tantrum in public. Do I treat this behavior with kindness and understanding? Do I set a strong limit? How do I handle it when other children complain that I’m being unfair? What do I do when my parenting stance is criticized by well-meaning family members? What do I tell the school?

We can find ourselves reacting unpredictably. One day we’re understanding and tolerant, the next day we’re setting a strong limit. One day we stand firm when we’re questioned about the child, the next day we’re doubting ourselves.

Igor Yaruta/envatoelements
What's your theory about how to parent him?
Source: Igor Yaruta/envatoelements

What we need is a unified theory about the child, the diagnosis, and how to hack it into a superpower. Once we’re acting based on a theory, it’s easier to be consistent, to explain to others why a stance makes sense, and it’s easier to avoid what I call Parental Self-Doubt Syndrome. Research on behavioral parent training demonstrates that one of the components that all effective behavioral parent training programs have in common is their emphasis on teaching parents to be consistent. Having a unified theory helps us respond in a consistent fashion to our children.

When I was a special educator, and again when I was a freshly hatched psychologist, I went to many professional development programs. I used to hate when the programs were theory driven. I would have a visceral reaction- I went to graduate school to learn theory. If I’m in a professional development program, I want to learn technique. Don’t tell me ten different theories about why ADHD children have a hard time in the classroom – tell me what to do tomorrow, when Gail jumps up in middle of class and starts flying an imaginary airplane around the room! Don’t tell me theories about how Sarah’s brain developed OCD, tell me what to do in session tomorrow, when she is refusing to follow the therapy script my supervisor gave me. I resolved that in my own parenting classes and professional development training, I’d leave theory out.

Once I became an intervention developer, however, I began to realize that I can’t leave theory out of the picture. Theory helps us understand why we are doing what we are doing. If we don’t have that, we can’t take what we’re learning and make it our own. We can’t apply it in a flexible manner.

It’s the difference between knowing a recipe and knowing how to cook. When you know a recipe, that’s great. Take all the ingredients, follow the instructions, and barring any unforeseen disasters, out comes the finished product! But when you know how to cook, you understand the function of each ingredient in a recipe. You know what is essential, and what can be modified. For example, if you know that the function of lemon juice in a coleslaw recipe is to provide an acid, and you’re out of lemon juice, you can substitute another acid, such as vinegar. Congratulations – you know how to cook, not just how to follow a recipe.

I don’t want parents following my recipe for how to parent a diagnosed child. I want to train Effective Parents. I want parents to know the function of what they are doing, so they know what’s essential and what can be modified to fit existing circumstances.

If we have a theory about:

  • What the child’s superpower is.
  • Which skills the child is lacking.
  • The most effective way to teach those skills
  • How to handle the rest of the world, like siblings, teachers, and friends, while the diagnosed child is learning those skills…..

Then we have a unified parenting theory. With that achieved, we’re immune to criticism or Parental Self-Doubt Syndrome. We know why we’re doing what we’re doing, so it’s easy to respond to internal or external challenges to our decisions.

One of the most effective ways to teach children skills is with behavioral parent training. It’s a theory-based system that makes sense, is measurable, and is easily modified to fit specific circumstances. Meta-analysis of behavioral parent training programs reveals that teaching parents about how to change behavior is a key component to helping them become more effective parents.

Next we need theory about the specific diagnostic category that applies to our children. Thankfully, there are reams and reams of research on every possible diagnostic category – from ADHD to Social Anxiety to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, there is research out there to help us make sense of how to parent a child with this profile. In upcoming installments, we’re going to review some of this research, with an eye towards specific strategies for parents to use.

Once we have that, it becomes simple to respond to our children in a unified fashion. We know when to be kind and responsive, and when to be firm and demanding. We know what skills we are actively teaching and demanding, and what skills are not worth focusing on. When we let a behavior slide, and we’re called on it, we can easily explain why we’re doing what we are doing. When we make a mindful decision to be demanding, and the child resists, we won’t crumble. When we know exactly why we are doing what we are doing, we can avoid Parental Self-Doubt Syndrome.

© Robyn Koslowitz, 2019


Kazak, A. E., Hoagwood, K., Weisz, J. R., Hood, K., Kratochwill, T. R., Vargas, L. A., & Banez, G. A. (2010). A meta-systems approach to evidence-based practice for children and adolescents. American Psychologist, 65(2), 85-97.

Wyatt Kaminski J, Valle LA, Filene JH, Boyle CL. A meta-analytic review of components associated with parent training program effectiveness. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 2008; 36(4): 567-589.

More from Robyn Koslowitz Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today