Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself: Why Negative Self-Talk Is a Parent’s Worst Enemy

We all make mistakes. Talking down to ourselves after the fact doesn't make it better.

by Ashley Abramson

Every parent has had one of those days. You’re on edge and your kids start whining. Against your better instincts, you raise your voice, which quickly causes them to erupt into tears. You didn’t want this to be the outcome and now you’re mad at yourself as a parent and starting in with the negative self-talk, saying everything from “Good move, idiot,” to “Could I just do something right?”

Self-deprecating thoughts about how much you suck at parenting may seem like appropriate penance for your mess-ups, but this type of thinking doesn’t just affect your self-esteem. According to Abby Gagerman, a Chicago-based therapist, shame-based self talk –if left unchecked – can increase stress levels, or even result in anxiety and depression as well as trigger a self-fulfilling prophecy that also impacts your kids.

“You can’t be the type of parent you want to be if you believe a negative message about yourself,” she says. “Negative self-talk affects the way you parent because you’re projecting negative emotions about yourself onto your kids’ perception of you, which will cause you to interact with them differently.”

Struggling with self-deprecating thoughts about your identity as a parent? Don’t be so hard on yourself. Here are a few of the most common negative self-talk examples – and what to tell yourself instead.

1. “My kids hate me”

If your kids constantly whine or complain, assuming they’re not a huge fan of you seems like a logical assumption. (If your kids are old enough, maybe they even told you they hate you.)

Laura Froyen, a parenting coach and child and family therapist, says it’s common for parents to adopt a narrow, in-the-moment perspective. But when you take the time to broaden your lens, you’ll be able to see your kids don’t actually hate you – if they did, they wouldn’t have crawled in bed with you or asked you to play with them this morning.

To counter that black-and-white, negative thinking, Froyen suggests adopting a more realistic, temporary lens. For example, maybe your kids are really mad at you, or they think you’re the worst parent in the world. “And make sure to add ‘right now’ to whatever you land on to remind yourself it’s circumstantial,” Froyen says.

2. “I’m doing a bad job”

When your self-care resources are limited, it’s easy to drop the ball on parenting duties. You might even feel like you’re doing a bad job in general. Telling yourself “I’m an awesome parent” feels like cognitive dissonance when you just yelled at your kids or forgot to feed them lunch. So what’s the best way to manage these negative thoughts?

Froyen suggests making affirmations about your role as a parent more believable by tacking on something that’s “also” true. For example, maybe you’re messing up a lot today or this week, but you’re also doing the best you can, or you’re also learning every day.

“When you have a thought like ‘I’m failing at everything,” going to ‘I’m a great dad’ is too big of a leap,” she says. “You’ll be more likely to see yourself in a different light if you start with a smaller jump.”

3. “I’m messing up my kid”

We all want our kids to grow up into well-adjusted, happy adults. On bad days, you might feel like you’re ruining your chances. Sure, you may be losing your temper more than usual, but you’re probably not messing up your kids’ long-term well-being – especially if you care enough to be concerned about how your actions affect them.

If you find yourself worried that you’re missing up your kid, Gagerman suggests reminding yourself that there’s no perfect parent, and even if you have all the best parenting skills in the world, you’re human – and your kids are more resilient than you think. Instead of dwelling on areas you’ve messed up, make a habit of repairing right after you fail – apologizing and talking about what happened and why it wasn’t okay — so your child knows you care enough to make it right.

4. “I’m just like my parents”

If you didn’t exactly have an ideal childhood, you’re probably determined to parent your own kids differently. On the hard days, though, it might feel like you’re destined to become just like the mom or dad who made your childhood tough.

When this happens, Gagerman suggests using that anxiety as fuel to find new ways to connect with your kids in healthy ways. If your mom always criticized you and you’re finding yourself critical of your kids, ask yourself what you needed to hear as a kid. Maybe you wish your mom would have said “I’m proud of you.” Telling your kid you love their drawing or their LEGO creation not only repairs your relationship with them, but also helps you work through your own emotions about your parents.

5. “I’ll never be as good as a parent as X”

Laura Goldstein, a therapist based in the Washington D.C.-metro, says it’s common for parents to compare themselves with others. Maybe you feel like your sibling or friend has it all together, and that you’ll never be as good a parent as they are.

In those cases, tell yourself what you’ve seen isn’t the full picture of a person’s parenting. It might seem like the mom down the street never blows up at her kids, but there’s no way for you to know that. And remember the difference between what you feel on the inside and what you see on someone else’s outside. Comparing your internal experience to someone else’s external behavior is like comparing apples and oranges.

If you’re comparing yourself to someone close to you, Goldstein suggests bringing up your struggle to that person. “It might be awkward, but being authentic about your struggle will help you see the full picture, and chances are, you’ll get the reassurance and support you need,” she says.

6. “This will never end.”

Parents, in general, don’t have the luxury of focusing on their own needs. That can be even harder during the pandemic, when your normal coping mechanisms aren’t safe or available (and your kids are stuck at home with you for the indefinite future).

While it’s normal to feel trapped or overwhelmed by the current circumstances, “always” and “never” statements won’t help you get through it. If you feel like things will never change, Gagerman suggests reminding yourself that everything is temporary, and that you’re not the only parent struggling to make it through a difficult time.

And as tough as it is for your kids to miss their friends or their school, they’ll be better off when you’re in a good place emotionally. “The most important thing for kids right now is that they can lean on their relationships to get through hard times,” Gagerman says.