Parents, please stop blaming yourselves for how your kids turn out

# What did I do wrong?

If you’ve been reading our articles consistently (and I know you have!), then you may recall the article I wrote entitled, “Sometimes I feel like a shitty parent. Am I the only one?” In that article I talk about my own feelings of failure and guilt, provide some statistics on how many searches are done related to feeling like a bad parent (the short answer: hundreds of millions). There’s even a link to a helpful article about how to this sort of parent guide called, Parent Guilt - A Silent Epidemic by Robin Grille (opens new window).

One thing I didn’t address in that article is just how many parents I speak with express these sorts of feelings. During these conversations parents often start by telling me about their kids’ struggles, diagnoses, the help they’re getting, and how the kids are doing currently. And then, almost like clockwork, the majority of parents ask me the following question in one form or another: “I just wish I knew what I did to cause my son/daughter to have these problems. What did I do wrong?”

Despite the fact that I know the question is coming, it’s heartbreaking every single time. There’s only so much I can do to assure parents that they are not singularly responsible for how their kids turn out and they probably did and are doing a much better job than they think.

Recently, I came across some excellent work by Dr. Yuko Munakata (opens new window), professor of psychology in the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, that addresses this very issue in a more meaningful way that I can. Dr. Munakata points out that many parenting books suggest that if your child isn’t succeeding (or perhaps has mental health issues), you’re doing something wrong. However, Dr. Munakata disagrees, saying that, “As it turns out, the science supports a totally different and ultimately empowering message: Trying to predict how a child will turn out based on choices made by their parents is like trying to predict a hurricane from the flap of a butterfly’s wings.”

This isn’t to say your parenting isn’t shaping your children - it probably is, just not necessarily in the ways you think or in ways that are consistent. For example, if you’re the parent of multiple children, would you say they turned out exactly the same? You’re the same parents, so why didn’t they turn out identically?

Although this makes giving advice about parenting terribly complicated, there’s good news - the research suggests there are some consistent patterns that can help us. Here are three important takeaways according to Dr. Manukata:

  1. Know that parents really do matter;
  2. Know that HOW parents matter is complex and difficult to predict. As a result - stop blaming yourself as if you’re in control of your child’s path. You have influence - but you don’t have control.
  3. Appreciate how powerful your moments with them can be because of what they mean for you and your child right now - not because of what they mean for your child long-term, which you cannot know.

In addition, she points out: “Activist Andrew Solomon noted that ‘even though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.’ Maybe we’d be less sad if we could let go of the notion that our children’s futures are in our control.”

There's so much more good stuff in her talk, I urge you to watch it here. As a parent who often feels like he’s messing up his kid, I found this talk really helpful and I hope you do to:

Click here (opens new window) if the video above doesn't play properly

# Do you or your child need support right now?

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