What can I do when I feel like I’ve failed my anxious child?

You know, when I started this podcast I figured I’d do it for one year — 52 episodes and that would be it. But this is Episode 54 so I’ve officially gone past my goal and the questions that are coming in are more complex. Like this one. And of course the actual question has a lot more backstory, which I won’t share given that it is very personal, and I’ve tried to distill it into this one simple but complex question, which is What can I do when I feel like I’ve failed my anxious child.

Oh listener who posted this and who did not leave their email so I couldn’t respond personally, I hope you are listening now. 

I’m sorry that you’re struggling right now and that you are hurting. Being a parent can be so painful especially when we are watching our children have a hard time. AS writer Sarah Payne Stuart: said, You’re only as happy as your least happy child. 

I’m going to try to address this very big, very important topic in this extremely short podcast and I hope that I’m able to do it enough justice that you will feel comforted and more confident at the end of it.

First off, you have not failed your anxious child. The relationship between parent and child is one that is forever changing. It changes as they change, as we change, as life changes. And sometimes we are a step or so behind the changes that need to come.

I learned this for the first time when my son, my oldest child who is now 26, was two. This is when he entered what I call the bent banana stage. You know the one, the one where your toddler asks for a banana dn if you give to them and they fall on the floor wailing because the banana is the wrong shape or size or you started peeling it for them or you didn’t start peeling it for them. When my son hit that age I was totally unprepared and our days bounced from tantrum to tantrum. This beautiful relationship I’d built with him came apart like wet tissue paper. The worst day was when he had a meltdown in public and another person intervened and told me I was handling it wrong. That’s a whole story about a bagel and one day if we ever met in person, ask me and I’ll tell you the whole sordid tale .But as I left that shop in tears, totally ashamed, I felt like a terrible mother and I felt like a fraud because I’d been working with kids for about a decade and yet here I was undone by my toddler. I can close my eyes and put myself right back there and remember exactly how it felt to carry my screaming child to the car while this woman watched, my face hot with guilt and anger and grief and fear thinking, I’ve broken my kid. 

Then my friend called, my friend with a child exactly one month older than my son, and said, “What in the heck is going on, my daughter has lost her mind.” And when we compared notes I realized, oh, he’s just 2 now and he needs a different kind of parenting than I’d been offering. I was still parenting him like a baby and he was letting me know that he was ready to be parented like a toddler. I had to learn a whole new set of skills.

This was a lesson I learned over and over again and every time we hit a snag — whether it was with my son or later with my daughter — and I started having that overwhelming feeling of frustration and guilt and failure I’d stop and say, “Wait, maybe it just means something needs to change.”

So I will ask you dear parent, who is feeling like a failure, I think it’s far more likely that you’re NOT a failure, that you’re a good parent in a relationship that needs to change. The pain and frustration you have, the struggle between you, is a sign that your child is demanding something different from you and you can do something about that. You have it within your power to go and figure out what to do next.

Do you get that reframe?

So many of the parents I talk to who are committed to parenting differently than they were parented — and there are a lot of us in the respectful parenting, gentle parenting, attachment parenting, conscious parenting, etc. community — Are super afraid of getting it wrong. In fact, so afraid that we might be causing harm that we are all too ready to beat ourselves up when we are unhappy or when our child is having a difficult time. 

Parenting guilt goes with the territory, I don’t know any parent who’s going to feel like they’re 100% nailing this parenting gig all of the time. And when we slip and yell or read a parenting book that highlights our mistakes or see another parent handling a challenge with grace that we screwed up, we’re probably going to feel guilt.

But guilt is only useful when it helps drive change. Guilt that just makes us feel bad about ourselves is useless at best and harmful at worst. It’s ok to say, “all right, guilt, I’m going to do things differently so you can stand down now.” It’s ok to say, “I regret those mistakes but I’m going to forgive myself and honor my intention to do better next time.”

And then we can start putting the supports in place that will allow us to do that. That’s what I mean about finding the motivation to drive change.

A lot of parents I talk to feel guilty not just because of what they’ve done or haven’t done but because of how they feel. They feel guilty for not enjoying their child or not enjoying parenthood and let me just say, that you can love your children very very very much, you can be willing to lay down your life for them AND you can also not enjoy them because kids aren’t always enjoyable.

 you can also not always enjoy parenting because the work of parenting — the day to day work of it — is not always enjoyable.

Parenting anxious kids is really hard. It’s hard to worry so much about them, it’s hard to feel derailed by them. It’s hard to have kids who demand so much. It’s hard to feel like you’re constantly failing. It’s hard to get whined at. It’s hard to deal with meltdowns. I mean, it’s not fun. It’s perfectly ok to want to run away from home sometimes.

I tell parents this all of the time — if you’ve worked with me before you’ve probably heard me say it — but there’s a whole genre of novels about moms who leave their families and there’s a reason for that, which is many of us have days when we’d like to run away from home. It’s ok to fantasize about running away and joining a circus instead of being a parent. Sometimes fantasizing about it is just the break you need to help you come back and face your tantruming child and your overbooked calendar and your messy kitchen and your endless to-do list once again.

I bring all of this up because sometimes the guilt about failing (I’m using air quotes here) is covering up a guilt we have about wishing we didn’t have these demands on us at all. And sometimes all of that guilt — all of that messy shame and worry and regret and fear — makes it really hard to know what to do next.

I meet a lot of parents who are overcompensating — like really getting entrenched in the parenting pitfalls — because they aren’t liking their kids very much and they feel bad about it.

So for example, a parent who goes out of their way to be gracious when their child is whining and dragging at them because they feel guilty for wanting to lose it. And I tell those parents, it’s ok to be human in the relationship. You don’t always have to be an instagram worthy parenting whisperer with your kids. If the relationship between you and your child is generally healthy, is generally loving, is generally strong then there is room for your imperfection.

There is room to get it wrong, realize it, and course correct.

There is room for you to go back and say, “I didn’t know and now I do and so I’m going to do it different from here on out.”

Getting it wrong, getting stuck in parenting pitfalls, feeling unhappy —  is a sign NOT that you’re a bad parent or that you have a bad kid or that you’ve been doing a bad job, the sign is that something needs to change.

That’s it. 

Just that something needs to change. And how else are you going to know that something needs to change except by becoming dissatisfied about the way things are right now. In other words, being unhappy in your parenting relationship or with your child is healthy and appropriate and NOT a sign of failure. 

When I am working with parents, I start with the assumption that they are doing a good job. Because most parents are. And when I start with that assumption, I am looking for confirmation so I’m making a point of noticing that parents’ strengths and skills. Those are the things we want to tap into as we make change. I don’t start with what they’re doing quote unquote wrong because I don’t think in terms of wrong. I think in terms of, What’s working and what’s NOT working.

This is why I say that your parenting isn’t the problem; it’s the solution.

IF I went back in time to meet myself as the unhappy mother of an unhappy 2-year old, I wouldn’t say, “Wow, what a screw up. What a bad mom. What a mess!!” I’d say, “Oh wow, there’s a mom tuned in enough to know that this isn’t working and just needs some help in figuring out what to do next.” 

I’d look at the good relationship we had up until that developmental turning point and know that the relationship was demanding change. My son was one of those kids who hit every developmental milestone like the Wile E Coyote running into a wall. Just slammed into it and every time I’d forget and think oh my gosh, I’m failing. I think I didn’t figure it out until he was about 10. I’m hoping you get to figure it out sooner. That change is hard, that change sometimes — well often, requires some measure if discomfort. It requires us to be uncomfortable enough to change. 

So my dear listener who posted this question to me and anyone else who is feeling this way, you have NOT failed your anxious child. You are realizing that what you’re doing isn’t working and how wonderful that you’ve realized this because now you can look for supports and information to help you create change. That doesn’t mean your struggle is over but it does mean that you have begun the journey to better functioning and understanding. 

True failure would be in denying your unhappiness or denying your child’s struggle and continuing to do the things that are not working. It would be continuing to treat a toddler like a baby when they are begging for help in growing up. 

We growing parents, instead of seeing ourselves as doing things wrong, I wish we could reframe this as the inevitable course of changing parenthood. What you did and what you do works until it doesn’t and then you might be unhappy and your child might be unhappy. But you can change things. Let me know if I can help. 

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