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"Am I Screwing Up My Kids?"

How to rethink this common parenting question.

Key points

  • It is OK to make mistakes in parenting.
  • How we recover from mistakes in parenting is what matters.
  • Every interaction with our children is an opportunity for teaching.

"Am I screwing up my kids?" This is the question that can keep you up at night—the question that can, if allowed, grow a sense of shame and self-consciousness about parenting that you didn’t ask for.

When my clients ask me this, my short answer is typically this: Yes. Everyone does.

But the longer answer is that we screw up our kids only as much as we’re all human, and it’s impossible not to be. Even more importantly, the way we’re thinking about it is all wrong.

Parenting Isn’t Pass/Fail

When people think that they are “screwing up” their kids, they imagine that when they lose their cool, or yell, or are just lost in general on how to discipline, they are doing irrevocable harm that will cause their kids to have perpetual issues and it’s all mom and dad’s fault. This kind of all-or-nothing parenting is not the way things really are.

Every day as a parent is not a pass/fail test. It can feel like it sometimes, but it is not. It is this pass/fail mentality that makes us believe that when we yell, we fail. When we have a soft answer, we pass. When they get an "F" on a report card, we fail. When they help a kid at school, we pass.

We try and add up all our passes and subtract our fails and then we just get confused and disheartened. Parenting isn’t a test.

Parenting, in its essence, is training your children on how to be future adults. It is also not about you. It’s about how they learn from you and learn through your actions—even your slip-ups, moments of anger, moments of regret, and moments of clarity.

If you yell at your child and feel as though you “failed,” remember that this is an opportunity to teach them what to do when you get mad, frustrated, or make a mistake. It is much more powerful to make a mistake with your kid and admit to it and teach them how to recover than it would be to be a parent that hides all their flaws and never admits to making a mistake.

Your child whom you feel like you just failed will be an adult one day and will be in your exact shoes. Teach them what adults do when they make the natural missteps that all adults do. Teach them about humility, recovery, remorse, and growth.

Is It Too Late?

Sometimes I am asked—is it too late? Has the ship sailed on my relationship with my child?

It is never too late to make a change in your parenting style. It is never too late to connect with your children, so don’t let doubt creep in and tell you otherwise.

Kids who feel as though there isn’t a relationship there will initially rebuff attempts at connection, but keep trying. If you show up for your kids time after time, and they can begin to trust that you won’t be put off by their bad attitudes, then connectivity can grow.

What If I’m the One That Needs Help?

If you feel that there is something that you are having a hard time handling personally that is affecting your parenting, then I urge you to seek individual help.

Parenting is a challenge. But for a parent who is dealing with their own past or present trauma, it makes things 100 times more difficult and it is important that you seek and get help. Children who are needing guidance need a parent who can be present and healthy for them while they are teaching and loving. It is a big ask, I know, but it is an important one.

Remember, you’re not a failure as a parent as long as you keep going and remember that every interaction is an opportunity for teaching—even the messy ones.

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