Common Parenting Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them
by Mark Goulston. M.D.
Do you know the difference between a calamity and a tragedy? A calamity is a
natural disaster. It is unavoidable. A tragedy has human origins, and could
have been avoided. That's what makes it a tragedy.
What is the biggest tragedy in life? It's coming to the end and discovering
that you had an unhappy life, and then to realize you did it to yourself --
and that it didn't have to happen.
This is what happens to people who don't overcome self-defeating behavior
(SDB). What is SDB? It is any behavior that side tracks you from moving
toward your long term goals and from achieving your full capacity of
satisfaction and fulfillment.
Why do people engage in self defeating behavior? They do so because
self-defeating behavior is coping behavior. It helps them cope with upset
and distress in the short run, only to take its toll in the form of negative
consequences in the long run.
If you're a parent, it's important not only to root out SDBs in your own
lives, but to help your children avoid them in theirs. Let's look at a
couple of examples.
1. Taking things too personally. Maureen tried to get control of her whining
and screaming children in the back seat of her van. While driving she turned
and yelled, "I told you kids to shut up!" Her car swerved, coming within
inches of smashing into an oncoming truck. Yelling got her kids to stop
screaming all right, but it also nearly got them killed.
Maureen's problem was that she felt her children's screaming was an affront
to her parenting skills, so she took their behavior personally. In reality,
their screaming had nothing to do with her. It was their way of letting off
steam, after being on good behavior during a site visit from the local
The key in such a situation: Don't take it personally, take it seriously. If
Maureen knew ahead of time that her children would need to blow off steam
when she picked them up, she could have stopped her car, turned around
calmly and told her children that she would not resume driving until they
became quiet. By taking the situation seriously she would have realized
that, yes, they needed to let off steam, but driving safely was more
* When your child does something that upsets you, ask yourself if you did
anything to justify his or her action.
* If you did, own up to it early. Offer an apology and promise to try to do
better next time.
* If you didn't do anything to justify the offending behavior, ask yourself
if your child is behaving this way because of something else. If so, don't
take it personally. Rather, take a deep breath, switch gears and try to
what's bothering your child and help map out an acceptable course of action.
2.Trying to take care of everybody. Life is NOT a cabaret, regardless of
what the musical of the same name told us years ago. Life is a juggling act.
At any given time we are parent, spouse, adult child to an elderly parent,
worker, boss, school parent, committee participant, friend, sibling, and of
course last, but not least -- ourselves. There are few people who don't feel
overwhelmed by all their roles. When you're able to carry them off, you feel
almost superhuman. This happens all too rarely. More frequently, you feel
that you are doing a mediocre job at all of them.
Few parents have not been accused by others or by their own guilty
consciences of treating their job as more important than their family or
their parents as more important than their children, etc. The truth of the
matter is that everything and everybody in your life compete for time, but
none of them should have to compete for importance. They're all important.
The key to overcoming this self defeating behavior is to find a way to help
everyone in your life feel and know that they are important.
One way to show people, including your children, how much you value them is to
demonstrate the Three C's:
* Concern. Let them express worries, fears and frustrations without
interrupting or rushing them.
* Curiosity. Show an interest in them before they ask you to. "How was
school?" does not convey much interest, whereas "How did talking to your
friend who hurt your feelings go?" shows that you are aware of, and care
about, the details of their lives.
* Confidence. Show respect for your child and faith in her ability to handle
problems. Instead of leaping in with advice, ask questions such as "What do
you think you'll do next?" or "When will you know how it works out?"
There are few things more frustrating than engaging in SDB and living with
the consequences of poor choices that we didn't have to make. Fortunately,
there are few things that can make us feel better about ourselves and our
relationships than overcoming self-defeating behavior.
It's not easy to admit that you get in your own way and harder still to take
responsibility for getting out of your own way. The advice here, on five
problems that typically set parents back, will give you confidence and
wisdom to leave self-defeating behavior behind.
Mark Goulston, M.D., is a Santa Monica, California based UCLA psychiatrist,
management consultant, and co-author with Philip Goldberg of GET OUT OF YOUR
OWN WAY: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior (1996), from
which this article is excerpted.
To buy a book on these and other topics, drop into the
Want to comment? Express Yourself!