Think You're a Bad Parent?
Follow these steps to challenge overly self-critical thoughts.
Posted Aug 30, 2017
Nothing could have prepared me for the depth of love I felt when our first child was born. Over the past nearly 10 years, I've experienced the profound reward of raising our three children.
Yet no matter how much we love being a dad or a mom, it’s no easy task to raise a human being. There's at least one thing people can agree on about parenting: It’s hard work. The work is even harder when we're constantly criticizing our own parenting.
I’m well acquainted with the harsh things we say to ourselves as parents, both as a dad and a therapist. Most of these critiques are unfair and untrue, which makes them a perfect target for the tools of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Some of the self-critical thoughts that often plague parents include:
"I'm a below-average parent."
We tend to see a curated version of others' parenting, especially on social media. In contrast, we're with ourselves all the time so we always know when we let our kids down.
In reality, we all face the same kinds of challenges as parents: We struggle to be patient at "crunch times" like bedtime and getting out the door in the morning. We get frustrated more than we like to admit. We feel guilty at the end of the day and vow that tomorrow will be better—which it is, but not always. We're never perfect parents.
It's ironic how many of us think we're below average, a sort of reverse "Lake Wobegon" effect ("where all the children are above average"). Chances are you're doing a better job than you give yourself credit for.
“I have to attend all of my child’s events.”
As parents, we want to let our kids know they're important to us and keep up with what's happening in their lives. These intentions could lead to all-or-nothing thinking as we tell ourselves we have to attend every single event.
However, inevitably there will be conflicting commitments, or things we frankly would rather do instead (see the next section). Maybe we'd rather take our favorite yoga class instead of attend our child's sports practice, or catch up on work during our child's field day.
We can only be in one place at a time, and we don’t have to criticize ourselves for this limitation.
“My child's interests must always come before my own.”
Major sacrifices are part and parcel of parenting. Your whole life changes and your time is often not your own anymore. Being an involved parent means less time for work, relaxing, self-care, and relationships.
It's impossible to avoid conflicts between what you need and what your child needs. Maybe you're craving a night out with friends, which will mean you can't tuck in your child at bedtime. Or you might be desperate for a 15-minute nap when your child is asking you to play with her.
Like with anything else, the key is balance. Our needs often have to take a back seat, and there are times when we have to be our own first priority. Otherwise we risk not being our best as parents as our emotional reserve is overdrawn and our moods tank. We can even become resentful that our own needs are never a priority.
“I must never lose patience with my kid.”
If you're looking for opportunities to practice patience, consider parenthood. It's a major challenge to keep our cool when a baby won't go to sleep, a toddler defies our requests, a child won't put his or her shoes on, teenagers refuse to clean their room, and countless other examples.
Whether we "should" or "shouldn't," every parent I know (including me) loses patience at times, often daily. (Obviously verbal or physical abuse is a different matter.) Keeping calm is an excellent intention to hold, and when we stray from that intention we can also practice patience with our imperfections.
“I must never find time with my child boring.”
Our kids can provide an endless source of delight—even their simplest acts like rolling over for the first time, smiling, or starting to walk.
At the same time, it’s easy to get bored by kid activities. LEGOs and imaginative play, for example, are much more interesting to a 6-year-old than to most adults.
We might start to feel exhausted by our child’s endless chatter, or tire of being at the playground. Maybe we can't bear the thought of listening to more of our teenager's social concerns.
Feeling bored doesn’t mean there's something wrong with you or that you don’t love your kids. It probably just means you’re fully human.
“I've permanently ruined my relationship with my kids."
The interactions we have with our kids on a routine basis are going to shape our relationship with them, so it matters whether we emphasize criticism or fear or love.
At the end of the day we might start reviewing our parental missteps: failing to empathize, raising our voice, misunderstanding. It's easy to imagine we've forever damaged the relationship we have with our child.
“My kids would be better off without me.”
Few thoughts are more troubling—and less true—than this one. I can basically guarantee that your kids would not be better off without you.
If this thought seems true to you, I encourage you to tell someone right away—especially if you're also depressed. This kind of thinking can be tied to thoughts of suicide, which clearly benefits no child. Talk with someone about whether it might be time to consider treatment to help you start feeling better.
Identifying Problematic Thoughts
The first step in fixing our thoughts is to notice what we're telling ourselves. Then we can challenge the thoughts that are dragging us down.
The next time you're beating yourself up about your parenting, follow these steps:
- Write down what you feel bad about doing. For example, Bill might say, "Raised my voice at my kid for leaving his bike out."
- Write down what you think your behavior means. In this example, Bill told himself, "I'm a terrible dad."
- Write down how you feel about the episode. Bill noted that he felt angry at himself and guilty.
To summarize this situation, Bill experienced:
Raised my voice → “I’m such a terrible dad” → Felt guilty, angry at self
Now it's time to take a closer look at the thoughts we're telling ourselves.
How to Challenge Harshly Self-Critical Thoughts
We can figure out if what we’re telling ourselves is true simply by examining the evidence.
- First ask yourself what evidence supports your thought. Bill said that grouching at his son could be evidence of sub-optimal parenting.
- Next, consider whether there's evidence that does not support your thought. Perhaps there's something you're ignoring or dismissing. Bill recalled that earlier that same day he had stayed calm when his son had done many things that could push Bill's buttons.
- After fairly weighing both sides, ask yourself how accurate the original thought was. Bill concluded that "terrible dad" was pretty overblown for what he had actually done, and in the grand scheme of his parenting.
- Formulate a more accurate way of interpreting your actions. Bill decided that a more realistic view was, "I'm a good parent and not a perfect parent. There are things I want to keep working on."
Bill felt OK with that thought, rather than guilty and angry. He also felt motivated to keep developing as a parent.
A form for this exercise is available here; simply provide your email (you won't be spammed) and then click on the form called “Challenging Your Thoughts (expanded form).”
Don't worry that this approach will trick you into thinking you're a better parent than you are; if our parenting really does need an overhaul, that information is crucial to know. The goal of CBT is not to be brainwashed by happy thoughts but to develop more accurate ways of seeing the world—which most of the time will also be kinder toward ourselves.
Have you wrestled with self-critical thoughts of your own? Please feel free to share how you’ve dealt with them in the comments section below.
Gillihan, S. J. (2016). Retrain your brain: Cognitive behavioral therapy in 7 weeks. Berkeley, CA: Althea Press.