Parents are more alike than different. Most of us want to do a good job. Most of us love our children to death. Whether married, divorced, or single, most of our kids have at least one other parent or parent-figure in their lives who is also, in their own way, trying hard and who also cares. Why is it that it seems so hard sometimes for us to give our kids the attention they need to grow into emotionally secure and happy adults?

When family educator and psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs said, “You have to look at the total situation,” he was not only talking about the child. Total means just that: Total. Parents are in the situation too. Sometimes it’s the parents’ situation that is the problem. Internal issues and external pressures on us also get in the way.

When that is the case, coming up with new and different ways to discipline the child are beside the point. We need to get our own act together first. It’s our situation, not the child’s, that needs to be understood, changed, or managed.

Look at the total situation from the adults’ perspective.

Internal Issues

Ask yourself:

1. How are you adjusting to the change in your life that parenting brings?
Becoming a parent changes our lives utterly. However much or little we want to do it; however competent we feel at it; however prepared we think we are for its demands, it changes our very identity and our role in the world.

When we have a child, we cross a divide and become one of them — one of those parents. There is no way not to react to the change. Some people embrace it and look forward to it as a chance either to relive a positive family life or improve on a negative one. Some people are terrified by the changes in their lives that parenting brings. Others feel put upon and resentful. That reaction, whatever it is, informs how we parent.

Possible solutions:

  • Reassure yourself that an adjustment period is normal.
  • Take the time to think hard about how you want to shift your priorities.

2. Do you have unresolved issues with your own parents?
Unresolved issues with our own parents can be crippling. At every age and stage of our child’s development, we are reminded of what it was like when we were that age. At every family milestone or family crisis, we are reminded how our own family did or didn’t manage it and how we were treated. If those memories are painful, if there is still unresolved anger and grief attached to them, the past can contaminate the present.

“My mother has always used me as counselor,” said Angie. “Every phone call is a long drawn out ordeal that can take hours. She says she doesn’t like her life. She says no one cares about her. She’s probably drinking again but denies it. She imposes on me but I can’t just hang up. She has nobody else.”

Angie is well-intentioned. But the reason her mom keeps calling her is that Angie keeps trying to make things better. She can’t. She never could. She can’t mother her mother, as much as her mother might want her to and as much as Angie has been trained to think it’s her job.

Now that she has two children of her own, Angie needs to focus on her kids. Counseling with Angie involves helping her extricate herself from her decades-long efforts to fix her mom. She can love her mother without being her counselor but it will take some time and some purposeful changes to preserve the relationship while still drawing some boundaries.

Possible solutions:

  • Do what you can to come to some kind of new understanding with your parents. If it’s impossible to do it with them, perhaps get some counseling support to reconcile your feelings within yourself.

3. Have you identified some good role models for parenting?
“My dad disappeared when I was two,” says Alan. “That left my mom and my big sister raising me. Mom had to work all the time. My sister resented that she had to take care of me when she wanted to be with her friends. Both of them resented men so much that there were never any positive males in my life. How am I supposed to know what fathers do? My best role models come from sitcoms!”

Alan is right. He’s at a disadvantage. The experience of having been parented well by one’s own parents provides an internal compass for those split-second judgments that are part of every day. Without it, every interaction is open to question. Young parents who didn’t absorb how to parent while they were growing up (or who are adamant that they don’t want to repeat their parents’ style of parenting) are making it up as they go along. Fortunately we’re in the information age. With information and encouragement, young parents like Alan can get the help they need to become more confident as parents.

Possible solutions:

  • No good role models growing up? Look around for people you think are doing a superb job. Imitation is not only the best form of flattery, it’s also a great way to learn.

4. Are regrets about your own life getting in the way?
Adults who felt they had to grow up very much on their own may even resent giving their children what they didn’t themselves get. Were you a teen when you became a parent? It’s not unusual to go through periods of jealousy that your own teen can be young and irresponsible when maybe you yourself had to grow up too fast.

It’s usually the kids who tell me about this. “I just wish my mom would stop trying to look 16,” says April. “I mean, it’s redic. Whenever guys come over, she starts, like, flirting or something. She thinks she’s cool but, like, it’s embarrassing.”

April’s mom got pregnant at 15. She had two kids by the time she was 19. Now that April and her brother don’t require the care that younger kids do, she says she wants “her turn” to be a normal teen.

She’s certainly not old. At 31, she’s younger than most of the other moms. But she isn’t a teen either. For her to have any influence on her children, she needs to reconcile herself to the fact that, yes, she did miss out on some things but, no, she can’t ever be 16 again. She can enjoy her life without trying to be her kids’ peer.

Possible solutions:

  • Make peace with yourself. Find ways to replace regrets about the past with resolutions for the present.

5. Do you have medical or psychiatric problems?
Illness (physical or mental) can take over. Some people have the internal resources to cope and even be heroic despite devastating diagnoses. Others simply aren’t wired that way.

Struggling with chronic illness is certainly draining. Kids, even very young kids, can be surprisingly helpful and compassionate. But they are still kids. It’s important to call in some help whenever possible so that kids aren’t turned into primary caretakers. Children who are overtaxed by feeling overly responsible for their parent’s well-being often buckle under the pressure. The result can be anything from out-and-out anger and rebellion to childhood depression.

Many hospitals offer ongoing support groups so that people who are battling the same diagnoses can support and learn from each other. Often it’s possible to obtain a case manager and some practical help. Loving our children when we are ill means loving ourselves enough to get the help we need.

Possible solutions:

  • Get adequate treatment. Actively work with your doctors. Find an adult support group so that you are not expecting your kids to be your caretaker.

6. Is your love for alcohol or drugs bigger than your love for your children?
James loves his 10-year-old daughter. He looks forward to seeing her every other weekend. He doesn’t have much money but he and his daughter have found ways to enjoy each other’s company without big-ticket adventures. They read together. They watch a little TV. They make spaghetti sauce or brownies.

Mostly, he’s able to keep her unaware that he’s also addicted to crack. But when the craving comes, he loses perspective. He promised his daughter he would provide her some dance lessons. The dance money went to his habit. He promised her a trip to the movies this weekend. But a pipe on Thursday was too hard to resist. He feels guilty. He always promises to do better. But, bottom line, the addiction has become more powerful than his love. At some point, his daughter will figure this out. At some point, she’s going to feel that he doesn’t love her as much as he says he does.

He does love her. But he loves the crack more. “You’ll never understand, Dr. Marie, “ he says. “That first drag is so amazing that it’s worth all the sh– that comes with it.” He’s right. I don’t understand. And he’s fooling himself. He needs treatment. His daughter needs a dad who is clean.

Possible solutions:

  • Get treatment. If you can’t end the habit, consider whether someone else should raise your child. Sometimes the best way to love a child is to find someone who can love him or her in ways you can’t.

7. Do you put yourself under too much pressure to be perfect?
Internal pressure to be good, right, in charge, and perfect in every way can actually make parenting more difficult than it needs to be. Perfection just isn’t possible. If you feel you need to be perfect to be good enough, you’re in trouble.

Adrian is a nervous wreck. His own dad died when he was only 5. Now that he has a son, he’s working overtime to be the kind of dad he wishes he’d had. He makes sure he plays with his son every day. He organizes the neighborhood kids into pick-up basketball games. He checks on homework. He spends almost every weekend doing some kind of sport or activity with his son. He’s a bundle of nervous, hyper energy, constantly acting as both the cheering squad and the captain of the team. He’s exhausted.

His wife wants a little time for the two of them but feels selfish for complaining. How can she be critical of a guy who is such a hard-working dad when her friends complain that their husbands are never around?

It’s not the involvement that’s a problem. It’s the driven quality of it that will probably backfire. Adrian can’t keep this up forever. He’s so busy being the perfect father of his imagination that he isn’t taking the time to figure out what his own son really needs from him. He’s so focused on being a good dad that he’s forgetting that his wife needs some of his time too. He’s so driven that he’s driving the joy out of what he does.

Gus has the same motivation but a different “solution.” He too lost his father when he was only 5. He has often wondered what his dad was like and what it would have been like to be a perfect son — just like Dad. His approach to parenting is to try to make his own son just like him. If his son expresses any interest that Gus hasn’t already mastered, Gus so reeks with disapproval that the boy doesn’t dare pursue it. Gus has himself, and his son, convinced that the two of them have to be perfectly alike to be a perfect father-son team.

Possible solutions:

  • Figure out why you are so driven. Find ways to help yourself be content with being good enough.

8. Have you sorted out your beliefs about parenting?
Children are a trustworthy barometer for when we have to straighten out what we really, truly think about childrearing. Contradictions scare them. They stir things up until we make it clear what is and isn’t okay.

Ramona brought her 13-year-old, Mindy, for counseling because they are fighting all the time. The girl calls Ramona by her first name and demands that she move out of her bedroom so that Mindy can have the larger room. Ramona is furious that her daughter is so demanding and disrespectful. Mindy has a list of reasons why her way makes more sense. Ramona spends hours in the debate.

Conversation with them reveals that Ramona believes strongly that kids are the equals of parents and shouldn’t be repressed in any way. She thinks the title of “mother” is indicative of an authoritarian rule that is old-fashioned and destructive. But she also thinks that her daughter should be more grateful for all Ramona does for her. She is deeply hurt that Mindy is so angry with her.

Ramona has some private work to do. She doesn’t realize that she is giving contradictory messages to her daughter that are creating the very situation that is so painful for her. She needs to decide where she feels she has the right to some authority. It would help a great deal if she would understand that equal respect doesn’t mean equal treatment in all things.

Possible solutions:

  • Do your personal work. Resolve your inner conflicts so they don’t become outer battles.

External Pressures

9. Are you making time to parent?
So much to do, so little time. Probably the most common reason that kids don’t get enough support from the people who love them most is the stress of modern life. Many parents are simply doing too much. Long commutes, demanding work lives, home maintenance, and the competing demands of many important relationships (spouse, friends, extended family, kids) leave many adults in constant turmoil. Short on sleep, living a life that is scheduled to the nanosecond, they are stretched to the limit.

It’s not that they don’t love their kids. It’s not that they don’t want to do well as parents. They haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that giving kids enough attention requires more than a few minutes devoted to “quality time” at the end of the day. Giving them enough attention often requires shifting priorities and the conscious decision to put off other important personal goals.

Possible solutions:

  • Take a hard look at your time and your life. What will really matter 10 years from now?

10. Are you under too much financial pressure?
Economic pressures also are a major stress. There’s no getting around it; raising children is expensive. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the annual costs of raising a child to age 18 starts (depending on family income) at $125,000, not including college expenses.

When paychecks don’t cover the bills; when parents can’t afford what they believe they should be able to provide; when one or more of the adults takes extra jobs in order to manage the basic bills, the resulting tensions can cloud the family atmosphere.

When parents are stretched to the limit, a kid’s simple request for field trip money or new sneakers can start a major fight. That’s not fair to anyone. Better to bite the bullet, figure out a budget, and deal with money issues directly. There’s no need to be angry if we let kids in on what we can and can’t do. Reducing expectations is better than reducing a kid to tears.

Possible solutions:

  • Take a hard look at your budget and your expectations for yourself. Get financial advice and help if you need it.

11. Do you have the resilience to manage when disaster strikes?
Some people manage hard times better than others. The most resilient among us manage tragedy, economic disasters, and natural calamities with grace. Parents who have an internal core of strength are able to continue tending to their children despite what fate hands them. Some even find ways to draw the family closer together when challenged by what my grandmother euphemistically called the “vagaries of life.”

Less resilient parents crumble. It’s all they can do to cope. They can’t also support the children who need them to do just that.

Fortunately, the skills of resilience can be learned. For a more detailed summary, see Survival of the Resilient .

Possible solutions:

  • Develop your resiliency.

12. Are you under unreasonable pressure from extended family?
This can be enormously discouraging. When an in-law undermines a parent’s judgment; when an older relative is constantly critical; when a spouse quietly or not so quietly countermands every decision the other parent makes; when the other parent in a divorced family insists on involving the children in complaints about the former partner, it corrodes some parents’ confidence to the point that they become ineffective. (See “When Mom and StepMom Disagree”)

Possible solutions:

  • They can only pressure you if you accept the pressure. Let go of your need for their approval and focus instead on whether you are meeting your own expectations.

13. Are you too isolated and alone in parenting?
There is nothing so lonely and scary as being new to parenting (or new to a new stage) and feeling totally overwhelmed and clueless about what to do. There is nothing so reassuring as talking with others who are in the same stage of life. Talking with other parents can normalize what at first seemed like an abnormal problem, can provide helpful tips for getting through a new stage, and can offer important validation and support.

Before you decide that a child is misbehaving, take an honest look at your role in what is going on. Often enough, there is more to the story than whatever the child is doing. Changing how you are managing your own internal issues or how you respond to external pressures may relieve the situation considerably. Change the circumstances, and the child will respond.

Possible solutions:

  • Join a parent support group. Get involved in the PTO or other organizations where parents gather.