Don’t Take it Personally: Your Child’s Emotions Aren’t Always a Reflection of Your Parenting

IMG_8163

He throws his toddler body against the floor in rage and despair. He’s inconsolable, and my attempts to comfort go unheeded. I feel vaguely responsible, inadequate. What could I have done to prevent this? Have I not sufficiently anticipated the difficulty of transitions today, failing to ease him into the shifts from play to lunch to diaper changes? Have I been less than fully present this afternoon, distracted by the endless list of tasks I’m failing to accomplish?

Since my son’s arrival sixteen months ago, I’ve often struggled with becoming too wrapped up in his strong emotions. It’s hard for me not to take his behavior personally, to not feel that I’m to blame when he’s having a difficult time. I wonder, am I doing too much of something, not enough of something else?

I’m not sure when I started feeling so responsible for others’ emotions, but I suspect that I’ve been carrying this torch for a long time. It’s just more apparent now that I live with a little person whose feelings can be so big. And, as he plunges into toddlerhood, those emotions just keep getting bigger.

The outside world doesn’t help. As new parents, in our vulnerable, sleep-deprived state, we’re bombarded with advice from every direction. No doubt, some of this advice proves helpful. But it also encourages the false notion that if we do it all “right,” our infants will sleep through the night, our toddlers will never tantrum.

We begin to view our children’s behavior as the direct result of our parenting.

Accepting this delusion is not only endlessly frustrating; it can also leave you feeling inept as a parent, when your infant inevitably wakes three (or four, or five) times a night, when your toddler wails inconsolably, banging his head repeatedly against the floor as you look on, bewildered.

Your self worth can become enmeshed with your child’s behavior. Others seem to judge you, and you judge yourself, when the inevitable tantrum ensures. Worse still, you worry that you’re failing your child. A nagging sense of inadequacy ensues.

At least, this has often been my experience.

As with most of the challenges of parenting, this is more about me than it is about him. My relentless desire for a perfection that doesn’t exist. My own difficulty dealing with strong emotions. My yearning to portray my life as much less messy than it actually is. My tendency to confuse caring for the people I love with being responsible for their emotions.

Rationally, I know that my son’s big emotions are healthy and normal. So many things he wants to do are just out of his reach, literally and figuratively. He needs an outlet for his frustrations, and he needs me to be the calm during his storms. He needs me to separate my own discomfort with emotional expression from his experience of life, to not take his feelings personally, so that he can feel loved even when—no, especially when—he’s having a rough time.

Parenting isn’t about acquiring the perfect repertoire of skills. It’s about developing a loving, respectful relationship with another human being. It’s about letting go of the control that you may have never really had in the first place, knowing that your efforts cannot, and should not, prevent your child from experiencing difficulties in this life.

I’m learning to accept that, while my influence certainly matters, my best efforts cannot guarantee a particular outcome. My son is his own person, with his own strengths and challenges, his own path in life to travel. By disentangling my own self worth from his behavior—from who he is—I give us both permission to be ourselves.

When I don’t take his emotions personally, don’t see his behavior as a critique of my parenting, I can love him unconditionally. And he can be fully himself, free to express the intense emotions of toddlerhood and confident that he will be accepted nonetheless.


27 thoughts on “Don’t Take it Personally: Your Child’s Emotions Aren’t Always a Reflection of Your Parenting”

  1. This was just what I needed to hear, thank you Selena. My seven year old is going through a stage where he says hurtful things then later realizes what he has done and apologizes. It breaks my heart heart when he says these things, even though I know he doesn’t mean it. You are correct, although not talking Iggy personally ius so hard to do.

    1. I have difficulties not feeling responsible for toddler tantrums; I’m sure it gets even more difficult once they have words! Though we shouldn’t take personally all of our children’s behavior, I do think we get to take some credit for it occasionally. And I think the fact that your son, at only seven years old, has the emotional awareness to realize that his words were hurtful and to apologize shows that you’re doing something (many things!) right.

    2. It hurts me when o know I am a good parent and others tell you are not just cause he said things he don’t know you are not to said them then five min later he said what did I. Do then when I tell him why and we got kick of the bus he said I am sorry don’t cry mom I said I just to see my poor child go through hearing people call names to other

  2. Oh my goodness – reading this felt like talking to myself! Except even though I am a psychiatrist/psychotherapist, I don’t think I could have so eloquently captured the emotional process. Lovely article. This is exactly my experience with my 16 month old son!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, ABC! Though of course I don’t wish that others struggle, it’s so reassuring to hear that I’m not the only mother with this challenge, that it’s not something that’s “wrong with” me. Our little ones are the same age too – a time of such big emotions. Hang in there, mama!

  3. my daughter 30 months old do the same with me…oftenly she s getting angry, crying and when I say no to what she wants, she became a little monster!!
    I try each time to keep calm and breathe and keep self control….but it s very hard and each time I finish by crying too (not in front of her)
    I try to convince myself that it s not my fault…but the truth is that I know that I should have done something that make her acting like that…

    I m scare…scare that when she will be older it would be worst, that we get into a bad relationship. She won t understand me and I won t understand her. ..

    It s really hard to be a mother…

    1. You’re so right, it is really hard to be a mother. And it’s hard not to let our own emotions get in the way when we’re dealing with strong emotions in our children, especially if we don’t have the support that we need (which, I think, many of us don’t). I’ve found the organization Hand in Hand Parenting to be really helpful. There are a lot of great resources about exactly this issue on their website – http://www.handinhandparenting.org. I hope it’s helpful to you, too! Hang in there, mama. You are not alone.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Victoria! I really enjoy reading other mamas’ (or dads’!) reflections on parenting. And I love your description of parenting as a “process” — a helpful reminder that it’s the little things we do each day that matter, not some unattainable ideal that we may have internalized.

  4. Wow! I have a 2 1/2 year old son and 1 year old daughter. I struggle on a daily basis on these very feelings with my son. He’s very strong willed, saying no all the time, hitting, etc and I always feel as though his actions are because I’m not doing something right. I find it very hard not to take things that he does personally but your words give me some insight as how to try and deal with him and his actions. I can only hope that he will grow out of it and be a sweet, loving, compassionate human being. Thanks so much for putting into words what I see a lot of us mothers are struggling with too

    1. I’m so sorry that you’re struggling with this, too, Sena. You’re really in the trenches right now, with two little ones who both need you so much. Even if it doesn’t always seem that way, your modeling of gentleness and compassion will make a big difference for your son. It can be so trying to have a strong-willed child, but it also shows that he is becoming a strong, independent person, which I think is a good thing. This too shall pass, mama. Just keep on modeling the behavior that you want to see in him. He loves you and wants to be good for you. Hugs.

  5. For a long time, I felt like I was the only mother who struggled with those feelings. It’s very reassuring to read such a well written article and realize that I’m not the only one experiencing this. Thank you!

  6. This is something I really struggle with. I have children who could not be more different. Mine aren’t toddlers any more but I still find I blame myself for the things they do, the things they don’t do, the grades they get in school, behaviour in school, why don’t they like broccoli more? What should I be doing, what shouldn’t I be doing? The lust goes on. I need to have a word with myself and believe that they will follow their own path and make their own choices, despite what I did, didn’t do! This right is something I am grateful for, the fact that their destiny is in their hands both thrills and terrifies me.

    1. Clare, I think the fact that your children are so different is a sign that you’re not responsible for everything! They’ve got their own innate strengths and challenges. I think you’ve summed up really well what parenting often feels like – simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.

  7. i see my wife going through this all day long with our 9 year old. It always ends up in a yelling contest. I don’t know the answer but her logic is to prepare him for the future. I feel he should find his way since the current methods are not working. He’s a great,smart boy but unfocused. He will find his way and that’s who he will be. We can’t control his future behavior and blame ourselves today. It’s detrimental to blame our parenting for their behavior. More frustrating is my younger son follows his footsteps. Double whammy! They will find themselves and we must remain patient and vigilant. Too much control is not nurturing.

    1. You’re right, Burnet, you absolutely can’t control your son’s future behavior (or any of his behavior, really). What you can do is try to maintain a connection with him, try to keep your relationship strong through the difficult times, so that he knows he can always come to you when he needs to. Easier said than done, but so, so important.

  8. Thank you for your honesty. Were you in my head? Although we know this…it is nice to read that other parents experience the same feelings of inadequacy and be reminded that as long we love our children and try our best it will fall into place. We are not responsible for every. single. emotion. We can help and love them and that is good enough. Great piece. Funny…I wrote about my need for gentle parenting today…I may go back and reflect some more after reading your article. Thanks again.

    1. Thank you, Karen. I’m so glad that reading this was helpful to you today. Two words you mentioned are really significant to me – “good enough.” I’ve written a lot about what it means to me to be a “good enough” mother, and about how that’s really all we need to be, even though it’s difficult to accept our imperfections at times. You’re so right – helping and loving our children is good enough. And maybe it’s all that we can really do.

  9. This is something all mothers need to read. Sometimes we feel so guilty for our children’s emotions and feel we’re not doing things right. This helps us realize we are not alone in the struggle and that we should accept and embrace the fact that our children have the right to be themselves. Thanks a lot!

  10. Thank you for this, Selena! Every time my son has a bad day, I beat myself up about it. I guess it’s about time to realize that they can have strong emotions too, and there’s little we can do about it.

    1. Yes, you must be gentle with yourself too! You can’t be gentle with your little ones unless you’re giving yourself that same care. I think our job is to support and guide them during their difficult times, not to prevent them from experiencing strong emotions.

  11. I am an older mother of nine children. I have loved and cared for my children and navigated life’s obstacle course of blame, shame, and guilt. I am here to tell you that you will come out on the other side of toddler years, childhood years, teen years and even those adult years. You can parent all of your children in the same way and yet eventually they will become what they choose to become. There is little reason to feel guilty about the emotions,etc. that your children have and experience. All of us have experienced those emotions too. Being responsible parents, trying to do the “right things,” trying to give our children the best that we can give, trying to give our children, our “all” and then some sometimes becomes a balancing act that ultimately can make us feel like failures. Many times it does feel like you have giving all that you can give and that still isn’t enough. But you still get up every day, doing the best that you can. You get up when you fall down, you forgive yourself if you have said an unkind word, you forgive yourself, when you do something that you later may regret in the chaos of your life. Because like it or not, we are only human and we all will make mistakes. We are all only learning in this life and as everyone knows, life and children never come with instructions. You can do all of those things and still be made to feel like you did not do enough, even though you were sufficient and accommodating to each child and person in your life. In my opinion children learn best from our examples of love, of fairness, of honesty, of hope, of forgiveness, of compassion, of patience, of wisdom, of acceptance, and of right and wrong. We can do no less than to be an example of how they should live.

    1. Thank you for this perspective from a mama who’s been through it, WLM! It’s so helpful to learn from others’ experiences, and to know that I, too, will survive these early years!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *