Beat Self-Defeat:
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 school superintendent.

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 important.

Taking Action:
* 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 find out 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.

Taking Action: 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.

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