Raising a child is one of the hardest things you will ever do in life. Becoming a parent is full of rewards, but it’s also fraught with challenges along the way and this means that mistakes are going to be inevitable. However, this doesn’t mean that every aspect of child-rearing is out of your control. You have the chance to take the reins on certain decisions and make better choices for your child.
So how can you make fewer parenting mistakes? Though no parent is given an instruction manual on how to be the ‘perfect’ mom or dad, there are a number of patterns and behaviors that any parent would do well to avoid. Family therapist Dr. Lori Whatley suggests that “there are certain things a parent can do to avoid being a bad parent.” Remember that a bad parent isn’t one who makes mistakes, a bad parent is one who consciously repeats them and is unwilling to change.
This article shouldn’t be seen as a blame game towards the parents, but more of a guidance on how to be the most responsible parent you can be and improve upon the strengths you already have (without falling into the traps!). Whether you’re raising a toddler or a teenager – or both! - we take a look at the common parenting mistakes you may run into (and how you can avoid them)..
Parenting Mistakes to Avoid
On good days, being a parent can give you the feeling that you instinctively know what’s best for your child, but this isn’t always the case. It’s common for most parents to mirror their own parent’s patterns in how they were raised or go the opposite way and rebel against every technique their parents used on them.
While plenty of positive nuggets of child-rearing can be taken from your parent’s style and your own natural judgment, there are certain well-meaning actions and behaviors that can actually have a negative effect on a child, so it’s good to be more self-aware of your parenting techniques and to observe how they might affect your child. To get a taste of what we mean by ‘well-meaning’ parental behaviors, let’s look at a few of the most common parenting traps…
Well-intentioned parenting mistakes:
Over-praising/constant positivity - there is no problem with praising or showing your appreciation for your child when they have genuinely done something good, but repeatedly labeling them things like a ‘clever girl’ or ‘good boy’ may actually have the opposite effect. For example, research has shown that repeating praising sentiments such as ‘you’re so clever’ can make your child afraid they won’t live up to this and they will take on fewer challenges for fear of failing – something that is so important to their development.
Being too protective – here’s an ironic one – a big parenting mistake is...not allowing your kid to make mistakes! Every parent wants to keep their child safe and secure, but letting them explore and be challenged by their surroundings is vital to their growth, emotionally and mentally. Allowing children to make mistakes and learn from them gives them valuable coping skills and life lessons that will benefit them for years to come.
Being overly encouraging - encouraging your child to be the best version of themselves is a great parental trait to have, but when you take this need to encourage them too far and become obsessed with their achievements, it can turn you into what experts call a ‘tiger parent’. Tiger parents have unrealistically high expectations for their children and often act competitively when it comes to their child’s studies or sports achievements. Because of this, tiger parenting has been linked to poor mental health in adulthood.
Other (more obvious) parenting mistakes:
Losing your temper – When kids ignore our requests for the one hundredth time, it can be tempting to just lose our cool in the moment and start yelling to make our point, but this just sets our kids up for anxiety in the long run - not to mention giving them the green light that yelling and anger is okay when things don’t go their way. Child psychiatrist Dr. Vinay Saranga says “parents must think before they act in the heat of conflict”,since kids are always watching and learning from you.
Regular punishments – all children need a certain amount of discipline, but when punishment is handed out regularly in a way that it becomes routine, kids will begin to obey the parents out of fear. In the long term, this constant punishment may lead to resentment and aggression in their teen and adult years. Worst of all, they may learn to lie to avoid punishment – affecting their future job and relationship prospects.
Not listening – Whether your kid is telling you about his adventures as a spaceman or the hand painting they made at school, it’s always beneficial to listen to them – no matter how trivial it sounds. Dr. Vinay Saranga advises that “Kids just want a voice, so just give them the time of day when you can.” Taking them seriously as people make them feel valued ad closer to you.
The trick to good parenting means finding a middle ground with some of these techniques, and providing your kids with a balanced and consistent structure. Easier said than done though, right? We hear you, which is why we’re going to explain how these parenting pitfalls can be avoided as we go.
Next, we’ll look at the common mistakes parents make at different stages of childhood and how circumstances at home (such as divorce and single parenthood etc) can increase the risk of parenting mistakes.
Parenting Mistakes Throughout Childhood
To break down which mistakes you could be making as a parent and when, let’s look at them alongside each of your child’s crucial life stages (from newborn to teen)...
Common parenting mistakes with babies:
Panicking/over-reacting to everything – if you have a newborn or know a friend who has, this may sound familiar. It’s natural to be very protective of your bundle of joy – they’re so tiny and delicate! But new parents need to learn to panic less about everything from how often the baby spits up to how much or how little they cry, because even babies can pick up on this anxiety.
Leon Hoffman, director of the Parent Child center in New York urges new parents to make the most of this stage of your child’s life, saying “this worry gets in the way of being spontaneous and enjoying your infant's first year of life. Babies are far more resilient than we give them credit for.”
Not allowing your baby to cry – if you’re in a restaurant and you hear a baby crying, your first instinct (and the mortified mother’s) might be to wish it would stop, but the fact is, crying is good! Crying is your baby’s way of communicating and it’s important to let them sound it out.
Pediatric nurse Jennifer Walker says “parents wrongly associate crying with the idea that we are doing something wrong, but babies are designed to cry.” The only time crying should signal a red flag is if your baby’s cries have lasted for over an hour and are accompanied by a fever, rash or vomiting. In this case, always make sure to call your pediatrician.
Placing them in incorrect sleeping positions – how you put your baby to sleep could save their lives. It’s crucial that parents place their newborns to sleep on their backs in their crib at night or for any nap, as this will reduce the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). The risk of SIDS is much higher if babies are placed on their stomach or side before going to sleep, as they could roll over and risk suffocation.
Just remember the phrase ‘Back to Sleep’ when putting your newborn down for a nap or to bed. After 6 months, babies can normally roll over themselves and change sleeping positions throughout the night, so they won’t stay on their stomach for very long.
Parenting mistakes with toddlers:
Caving into tantrums – giving into your toddler’s temper tantrums too often can lead them down a pretty dark path as older children and teens. When your toddler gets hysterical, it’s his or her way of testing the boundaries with you, and if your immediate reaction is to comfort and console them each time, then you may be in danger of raising a demanding monster.
When your toddler loses their cool, you must maintain yours (as hard as that sounds!). While your toddler is testing out their boundaries – and the strength of their lungs – your job is to stay firm and respond to their demands with a firm ‘No’ every once in a while. This won’t break your toddler’s bond with you, it will just teach them to respect limits.
‘Baby talking’ with your toddler – baby talk was cute with your newborn, but once your kids reach the toddler stage, their personalities are starting to bloom and cute baby talk isn’t very appropriate, especially if you want them to have any chance of developing.
Toddlers benefit from being talked to like human beings, so if you are guilty of a little baby talk now and then, try talking to them in a natural conversational way. Their skills in expression and language will thank you for it, and you will help grow their vocabulary by speaking in words outside of ‘goo-goo’s’ and ‘ga-ga’s
Making screens the new babysitter – it wasn’t so long ago that pacifiers were used to keep your toddler quiet/distracted after a tantrum, but now it seems like technology has taken its place. Although it can be tempting to put a shiny distracting tablet or TV screen in front of your toddler, you should be wary of how much screen time they are being exposed to.
Make sure you are engaging your toddler in plenty of non-screen related activities too to keep their minds and imagination active, such as reading, coloring books, playing with blocks and paints etc. It’s so important that they have a creative outlet, so keep the TV and tablets out of reach when you can.
Parenting mistakes with teens:
Trying to be their ‘best friend – while it’s wonderful to have a close relationship with your teen, it’s not exactly healthy to go out of your way to try and be their best buddy. With everything that the teenager years throw at them – puberty, hormones, confusion – they need someone to look up to more than ever and that can’t happen if you try to be friends.
As hard as it might be to swallow, your teen needs friends their own age, and needs you to stay in your place as their parent and role model. This is where you’ll be most helpful to them when they come to you for life advice, but this may not happen if you’re never out of their sight grilling them about their crush or requesting that you give each other makeovers!
Not involving them in big decisions – if you can make a teenager feel valued and appreciated, you’ve won quite a big part of the battle as a parent! Most teens have a tendency to feel misunderstood or shut out by their family and peers and may repeatedly inform you “stop treating me like a kid!”.
Sound familiar? This may be down to their unrelenting hormones, but it could also be because they don’t feel like they’ve had a chance to prove themselves as grown-ups. A great way you can do this is by giving them a say in major decisions such as big changes being made to the house or getting their help to organize a big family party/holiday. Giving them greater responsibility shows you trust them and this can pay off more than you know.
Sweating the small stuff – by obsessing over the trivial things your teenager gets up to such as getting a radical new haircut or bizarre outfit, you can run the risk of ignoring the bigger picture. Clinical psychologist and childcare author Robert Evans suggests that parents should give teens the freedom to express themselves and, ultimately, make their own mistakes.
“A lot of parents don’t want growing up to involve any pain or failure”, says Evans, but if you rob your teen of the chance to learn from their mini failures and disappointments, you set them up for bigger stake failures in later life. So next time you’re tempted to punish them for getting a wild hairstyle or piercing, save your worry for a real concern like signs of alcohol or drug use.
Parenting Mistakes after Divorce
In the aftermath of divorce, the emotions of each parent have a tendency to run the show. And while this is understandable in the wake of heartbreak and grief for the partnership you once shared, your children are experiencing all of this too (and have a far greater chance of becoming damaged by it).
Divorce can represent a huge loss of control, but an important area in which you can take back control – in a positive way – is by making the best decisions for your child, and this means being a kick-ass parent even in the face of heartache. Here are some of the common mistakes parents make after a divorce – and how you can combat them:
Focusing on ‘point-scoring’ rather than the kids
Under the red mist of divorce, normally rational and well-meaning parents can get into the habit of trying to score points from their kids and may not even realize they’re doing it. Things like buying the kids affection with new toys and later bedtime hours to seem like the ‘cool’ parent may feel good in the short term, but in the long run? It’s unfair to your partner and your kids.
Solution? Brand new toys are no substitute for your love and attention, and this is all your kids really want from you, so show it. Founder of the blog coparently.com, Hanif Virani, suggests that point scoring parents step back and put themselves in their kid’s shoes. If they want to spend time with their dad instead of your plans, let them. They will see through the constant pity gifts if you continue to hold them back from what they need.
Recruiting kids to do adult jobs
In the wake of divorce, parents can be an emotional wreck and this can cause them to look for support in every area they can – even their own children. Asking children to lighten the load with extra chores around the house to do the job of another parent, or worse, confiding in your kids as if they were your therapist!
Solution? According to the Chicago divorce firm Greenwich Law Group, a divorced parent should never expect their kids to pick up the slack after a divorce. This is the time when kids need extra security in their lives and the knowledge that you can cope without mom or dad around. While it’s fine to allow children to share small chores if they offer to, they need to see that you are capable of the bigger stuff. And if you need someone to vent to, speak to a therapist or fellow adult.
Co Parenting Mistakes
Once the dust settles on a divorce, the next challenge parents have to face is how to continue to raise their kids well as individuals, and this is a time when their parenting style is under the spotlight more than ever.
Co parenting counseling can help iron out a lot of tension between divorced or separated parents, but alongside therapy, parents need to admit to their parenting strengths and weaknesses and recognize when they are making mistakes, rather than blaming the other parent for theirs.
Here are a few examples of the common mistakes made in the co parenting process:
Grilling kids for dirt on your ex – Asking your kids to do this not only reeks of desperation, it places huge amounts of pressure on your child and will only bring more anxiety into their lives. Leave your kids out of your revenge plots. They are your children, not your spies.
Being strict with the parenting schedule – successful co parenting needs flexibility, so if you’re unwilling to adapt to plans or switch times for your partner to see the kids, it not only hurts them, but teaches them a bad life lesson – that life has no room for flexibility.
Fighting in front of them – you wouldn’t consciously fight with another family member in front of your kids, so try to keep this in mind when you have the urge to bicker with your ex. How you handle your reaction to each other is far more important to your kids than getting the last insult out to your ex.
Single Parenting Mistakes
Parenting is hard enough when you have someone else on your team, but as a single parent, the weight of responsibility can sometimes take you to breaking point. In this sense, it’s completely understandable for single moms and dads to make mistakes with their kids. However, once you know what they are, it can be much easier to fix them and learn from them than if there were two parents making the same mistakes!
These are some of the common errors made by single moms and dads...
Poor time management – Juggling work with childcare can seem impossible at times, but you make it even harder on yourself if you try to take on too much. For example, staying late at the office for a little extra money or accepting that invitation out of kindness, only to be too tired/overworked to forget the parenting schedule or spend too little time with the kids.
Quality time vs ‘time’ with your kids – as hectic as your schedule is, you can still find time to spend quality time with your kids where you properly engage with them and listen. Otherwise, you are not being emotionally present with your kids and they will suffer from this lack of attention and nurturing in the long run. 30 minutes of joint coloring in is far more precious than watching TV with them while you check your work emails.
Holding on to your ego – as a single parent, you may want to show the world that you can handle it all, and while that’s admirable, it’s not healthy or realistic. Step back and accept help and support from loved ones when you need it (and even when you don’t).
How Do you Fix Parenting Mistakes?
As we’ve established, mistakes are easily made throughout parenting and many are repeated out of habit, but as long as you commit to learning lessons from them, you can work to fix your parenting mistakes. Mistakes are there to teach us, after all, and the best way to ‘fix’ your parenting mishaps is to become more aware of your behavior on a daily basis and how this affects your children.
Combining everything you’ve learned from the above sections, try using this 3 step process to ensure you don’t repeat your worst parenting mistakes...
1) Own it! - The first major step is to simply own up to your mistakes – preferably in front of your children. Admitting your past failures and poor judgment in certain situations will garner greater respect from your kids. Your kids aren’t meant to see you as perfect human beings, so just be honest about your mistakes. It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
2) Ask your child about their feelings/reaction to the mistake – to truly repair the mistake, you should talk with your child about how the conflict made them feel. Allowing them to express their feelings about the situation takes a great step towards healing from harsh words and things done in the heat of the moment. Bottom line: instead of feeling lonely and resentful after conflict, your child will feel understood, respected and loved better by you.
3) Put what you’ve learned into practice – next time conflict arises, remember how to re-frame your anger or frustration and asses the situation. Tell them you are angry/disappointed by their actions before yelling things you’ll come to regret. Revisit the different childhood stages (above) to remind yourself of when and how these mistakes play out and how you can be prepared next time.
Remember that even the best parents out there are still learning new things every day – that goes for parents who are also now grandparents! As Professor of education at Drake University, Sally Beisser puts it: “Parenting is the only profession that, by the time you’re really good at it, you retire!”