Happy Children Aren’t Always Happy: 10 Pivotal Parenting Pitfalls and How to Prevent Them

Claire Lerner, LCSW-C

It is my privilege to work every day with the most loving, sensitive parents of young children who are struggling mightily with how to understand and respond most effectively to their children's challenging behaviors. Their stories are sometimes hilarious, like the feisty 3-year-old who, when told by her dad that the reason she couldn’t have the candy at the grocery store was because he didn't have enough money, responded that in that case he should just put back the eggs. But many are heartbreaking, like the myriad of parents who despair that the two precious waking hours they have with their child each night are spent in power struggles and negotiations: lots of aggravation and little joy.

While the path to solving the range of challenges parents face is different for each family, I have found that there are a number of pivotal parenting pitfalls that cause a lot of frustration and stress—for parents and kids. When we uncover them, it results in that “aha” moment for parents that leads to important insights and the ability to make the positive changes they are seeking.  Often, it’s a matter of re-framing the issue—seeing a behavior in a developmental context and through the eyes of their child—that helps parents tune in to the meaning of the behavior which enables them to move from anger and frustration to empathy.  

These insights guide me, too, as I continue to work towards being the best parent I can be to my children, now in their mid-20’s.  Truth be told, rarely a day goes by that I don’t feel the sting of regret at how much less anxious and reactive I might have been when my kids were growing up, how much calmer and less stressed I would have been, and how much more pleasure I would have experienced, had I been mindful of and practiced these principles myself. I wish I had understood that happy children aren't always happy; that while learning to deal with life’s frustrations and disappointments involves children feeling uncomfortable and unhappy at times, muscling through these challenges is what builds resilience and strong coping skills. So when parents ask me if it’s too late for their child—fearing they’ve already “ruined” him (even at the ripe age of 3)—I can tell them the good news: it’s never too late. 

Pitfalls to Positive Parenting

1.Unrealistic expectations. Many parents expect their young children to be able to exercise much more self-regulation than they are actually capable of. Toddlers are driven by emotions, not logic, so irrational behavior is normal and expected. Trying to use reason to get them to cooperate is rarely a useful endeavor. The part of the brain that enables us to think about and manage our feelings and impulses is not well-developed until 5 to 6 years of age. Expecting more from children than they are capable of can lead to lots of frustration for both parents and children. Further, having appropriate expectations is critical because the meaning you assign to your child’s behavior influences how you react. If you think your child is purposefully breaking rules or driving you crazy, you are much more likely to react in harsh ways that escalate, instead of calm, your child. If you see these behaviors in the context of normal development, you are more likely to approach your child with empathy and appreciate these moments as opportunities to help them problem-solve and teach coping skills.

2.  Minimizing your child’s feelings. Because we love our kids so deeply it is naturally painful to most of us when they experience and express difficult emotions. We just want to make them go away because they make us uncomfortable. But ignoring or minimizing feelings doesn’t make the feelings magically disappear, they just get “acted-out” through behaviors (often negative) that can lead to more stress, not less, for your child…and you. Sadness and joy, anger and love, can co-exist and are all part of the collection of emotions children experience. Feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are. It’s what children (and we adults!) do with our feelings that can be problematic. When you name your child's feelings you help him understand, accept and ultimately lean to manage them in appropriate ways.  

 3.  Living in terror of the tantrum.  The root cause of challenges with limit-setting for many parents is that they are driven by fear of the tantrum which they are trying to avoid at any cost. The problem is that cost can be substantial as it results in the child driving the car, calling the shots, and parents getting increasingly angry and resentful that their child is making them feel so helpless and out of control. It’s important to keep reminding yourself that limits are loving; just because a child doesn’t like a limit, and is unhappy in the moment, doesn’t mean it’s not good for him. (I have yet to hear a 3-year-old say, “Thanks, Dad, for limiting my screen time. I know how important it is to engage in 'real life' activities with other humans.”) Setting and enforcing clear limits is actually one of the most loving things you can do for your child.  Learning to cope with limits leads to flexibility and the development of effective coping strategies: accepting a cheese stick instead of candy or finding another toy to play with when the one they want is off-limits. This ability to adapt is what ultimately makes children happy and helps them be successful in the outside world.

4.  Setting limits you can’t enforce. On one home visit after another it has become clear that one key factor that gets in the way of setting effective limits is when they depend on the child’s cooperation—to clean up their toys, get into their PJs, or climb happily into the car seat. The problem is that you can’t actually physically make your child do these things. Any time you are waiting for your child to follow a direction or trying to convince her to cooperate, she is in control. You can demand repeatedly that she not throw a ball in the house or to stay in her room after lights-out, but unless you have a plan for how you are going to follow through on the limit you are trying to set your child is in the driver’s seat and she knows it. This is not good for her or for you.  So, as you go about setting limits, keep in mind that a limit is only as effective as your ability to implement it. You can’t make a child get in her car seat, but you can give her the choice between climbing in herself or having you put her in. You can’t make a child stay in his room after bedtime, but you can put up a gate to provide a boundary that prevents your having to continuously (and with increasing annoyance—not good for anyone) escort him back to bed. Experiencing the consequences of their choices is what helps them learn to make good decisions.

5.  Seeing your child as manipulative when she is really being strategic. Children are driven to get what they want and will use any tools at their disposal that help them reach their goal. They are not fascist dictators (although that's how it often feels).  If throwing a tantrum results in extra iPad time, a later bedtime, or simply getting more of your attention, your toddler is putting 2 and 2 together, making an important assessment: “Excellent strategy! Put that one in the win column.” This is not manipulation, it is being strategic. Seeing their behavior through this lens can reduce your anger (and horror) and instead help you appreciate what a good job you have done raising a clever child. This puts you in a mindset that makes it more likely you will respond with calm and clarity about the rules and expectations, and not let the strategies you don’t want your child to rely on, work: "I know leaving the playground is hard--it's so much fun here. But it's time to go home for lunch. You've got two great choices--you can climb in the stroller or I can put you in, which would you like?"

6.   Taking the Bait. I hate you—you are the meanest mommy! You are not invited to my birthday party! Sound familiar? Young children are unbelievably clever; they are highly skilled at tuning in to what yanks their parents’ chains and gets them in the jugular. My most recent favorite from a clever and feisty 4-year-old: I am going to take your voice box and throw it in the trash! (when told there would be no 6th book at bedtime)While this feels so wrong, and is extremely exasperating, children are just trying to figure out how to gain the control they so desperately want and yet have so little of. Any reaction from you reinforces the behavior, even if your response is negative. The best way to respond to bait? Ignore it. This doesn’t mean you ignore your child—you just don’t engage around the provocative behavior. Instead, acknowledge the underlying feeling: “You are so disappointed that we can't read this other book tonight. I'll put it on the kitchen table and we can read it at breakfast." Then move on to show you will not engage in a back-and-forth about this. You can't make your child stop trying to draw you in but you can refuse to keep the detrimental dance going. 

7. Talking too much when children are in distress mode. Most of us tend to feel a need to either try to talk our children out of their upset, reason with them, or teach them a lesson. When your child is triggered he is on system-overload; the more you talk, the more likely he is to escalate and get even more dys-regulated.  He just needs you to be a soothing, loving presence until he can get calm. Then you can process what happened and brainstorm how you can help him resolve whatever the problem was, or deal with it differently next time…and the time after that. Also avoid asking your child why he did what he did.  Young children are often acting on impulse, not with premeditation.  When we ask them for a reason for their behavior they feel compelled to please us by coming up with a response that is often nonsensical. When they are calm, ask how they felt and then you can help them make a connection between that emotion and their action: “You were mad mommy had to feed baby and couldn’t play with you. When you’re mad sometimes you hit to get the mad out.  Let’s brainstorm other ways to be mad that aren’t hurtful—because I know you don’t mean to be hurtful.” (It is very important to send this message so that children don’t internalize negative feelings about themselves as being the “bad”, “aggressive” child as that only begets more challenging behaviors.)  Also note that when young children laugh or look away when you are talking to them about their “misbehavior”, this does not mean they are sociopaths with no empathy—it is often quite the opposite: the kids who respond this way are often the most sensitive and tuned in to other’s emotions and reactions. They get flooded with shame when being corrected and their discomfort results in laughter or turning away to protect themselves from the intensity of the interaction.  

8.  Being reactive. This is a biggie—managing our own emotions. When we react with anger, annoyance, shaming, etc., it just escalates our children’s distress. Your greatest tool in teaching your child self-regulation is practicing it yourself. This is no small feat but is important to keep working on as the benefits of being responsive vs reactive are huge, for your child and you. Being responsive means anticipating what kinds of situations get you revved up and reactive and make a plan for how to calm yourself in order to make a thoughtful decision about how to respond. This might mean taking a mommy/daddy time-out. This gives you a chance to calm down and think through the best way to respond and throws a monkey wrench into what often becomes a heated back-and-forth. (It also sometimes has the very fortunate effect of the child stopping short in his tracks—so shocked at your calm response!) Taking this time-out can keep you from being reactive, gives you time to think, and provides a very powerful model for exercising self-control.  It is also a great tool for co-parents as a way to avoid undermining each other (one parent says "no" while the other caves) and to allow time to come up with a united plan: “Hmm…this is a problem; you want ice-cream but it is almost dinner time and that is not a growing food. We need a minute to think about how to solve this problem.” Once you have agreed on a plan, you let your child know what his choices are: “We know you love ice-cream and want some now, but that is a sweet for after dinner. Now your choices are apple slices or carrots.” If he throws a big fit, you calmly and lovingly let him know you see he is unhappy about your rule and then move on. Remember--don’t fear the tantrum! Your child has to experience some discomfort in order to learn to be flexible and make good choices. 

9.  Solving your child’s problems. It’s a natural, human reaction not to want to see our children struggle. Our knee-jerk response is often to rescue or “fix” whatever is causing our children distress. (One cry of frustration from my 3-year-old challenged by a puzzle resulted in my instantaneous, mom-to-the-rescue response—fitting the pieces in their correct spaces to make him feel all better—setting a pattern of him relying on me to be the fixer for years to come.) When parents solve their children’s problems, they are missing opportunities to help them develop the confidence that they can master new skills. In helping make it all better--so our children won’t feel bad about themselves--we are actually doing the opposite: we send the message that they are not capable of mastering the challenges they face, and that only adults can solve their problems (which, by the way, can lead to placing blame on their parents for everything as they grow!) See your child as a partner in solving problems. Starting at around 2.5 to 3 years of age, children begin to understand logic—why things happen. This means they can start to participate in problem-solving. “Throwing balls at people is not okay—It hurts. What are other ways you can use the ball?” “Two boys, one truck, what should we do?” The more children feel they are a part of the solution, the more likely they are to cooperate with it. Life is a series of problems to solve every day, so nurturing this skill in young children is one of the greatest gift you can give them.

10.  Being too hard on yourself; trying to meet some standard of “perfect” parenting. Being a “perfect” parent doesn’t mean never making mistakes — it means being committed to learning from them. Don’t waste your energy berating yourself and feeling guilty when things don’t go the way you want or intended; that just sends you down the rabbit hole of despair and makes it more difficult to see your way out. Mistakes are just part of the process—learning through trial and error. (FAIL=First Attempt In Learning) Being a “perfect” parent means that when things aren’t going well you take the time to reflect on what the cause of the problem might be--what is your child telling you with his actions and why might your response not be most effective--to provide the data you need to make a course correction or redo. And don’t be afraid to say “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have yelled. I was angry and lost it. Let me try this again.” You are modeling taking responsibility for your actions as well as self-awareness and empathy.  

Alas, it is true–children don’t come with manuals, at least not written ones. However, if you watch closely, listen carefully, and are tuned in to and open to what your children are telling you with their actions and words, and see them in the context of their development, unique temperament and life experiences, you will have most if not all the information you need to guide them in becoming awesome people and citizens of the world. At the very least I hope these guiding principles make parenting a little less stressful and a lot more joyful.