How to cope when you feel like a bad parent

Mum looking happily into the distance on the couch holding a cup of tea

By Leanne Hall – a psychologist, TV presenter and mum.

Parenting certainly has its rewards, but it also has its challenges. As our children grow and wrestle for independence through their teenage years, it can feel like the rug is constantly being pulled out from under us. This can impact how we feel about our parenting in a number of ways. It can make us feel like a bad mum or dad. It can cause us to question whether we’re doing enough – something that’s extremely difficult to admit to and talk about.

Reasons why you might be worrying about whether you’re a good parent

Teens are certainly known for having mood swings, but as parents, we’re on our own emotional roller coaster. We’re trying to make sense of the changing world around us, and to deal with financial worries and health concerns, all while trying to keep our families safe. Like playing both sides of a football game, it’s exhausting.

All of this stress inevitably plays out in our relationships. My daughter completed Year 12 in 2020. Supporting her and helping her to navigate all of the challenges she and her peers faced often had me asking the question so many parents ask themselves: ‘Am I doing enough?’

Sometimes, I felt like I was no longer in control. Even worse, I occasionally found myself wondering if my parenting was doing more harm than good.

Why it’s normal that your teen is experiencing issues

Mental health is by far one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century. A 2016 report suggests that one in four young people between 15 and 19 years of age meet the criteria for a serious mental health issue. We also know that over 75 per cent of mental health issues occur before the age of 25. The teenage brain is still developing, and so these statistics highlight the impact of social and cultural stress factors on young people and their ability to cope.

This means that the majority of teenagers are experiencing some form of anxiety, which magnifies the emotional highs and lows that teenagers already experience as a regular part of adolescence. Irritability, tearfulness, anger, sadness and anxiety are common responses to the uncertain or scary times in their own lives, as well as in the world at large. In some cases, this stress and anxiety can lead to behavioural changes, as well as to poor concentration, fatigue and low motivation.

As a parent, the biggest challenge is knowing how to manage your own stress and worry while at the same time allowing your teenager the space to express their own.

Practical tips for looking after yourself

When we feel depleted and run down, it’s much easier to be self-critical. While it’s natural to want to be there for our children during difficult times, it’s equally important to look after ourselves. There is a fundamental difference between self-care and being selfish. The former enables us to be better parents, while the latter takes us away from our responsibilities. However, when we feel recharged, happier and healthier, our perspective can shift, and that positivity can open new doors and opportunities for connecting with loved ones, especially our teenagers.

To do this, create some space in your routine for the following:

  1. Make your physical health a priority. Set time aside to exercise, focus on getting good-quality nutrition and sleep. Better still, involve your teenager in this process and work together as a team.

  2. Look after your relationships. If you have a partner, invest in spending regular quality time together. It can be as easy as turning the TV off at night and talking over a glass of wine or a cup of tea, together. If you’re single, make sure to schedule time with family and friends – people who ‘fill your cup’, instead of those who drain your energy.

  3. Practise saying ‘no’. If you want other people to respect your boundaries, you need to respect them yourself. Saying ‘no’ doesn’t have to be confrontational, especially when you’re able to let people know what you can do instead.

  4. Schedule relaxation time. Just 15 minutes at the end or beginning of the day is all you need.

  5. Plan things to look forward to. This will help you to get through your everyday routines and will lift your mood. It also provides a mental distraction from those unhelpful ruminating thoughts.

Questioning our abilities, feeling helpless, and ruminating on the possibility of a future we don’t want for our children is something every parent has in common. No-one knows what their road ahead is going to look like. For this reason, we need to allow ourselves time to adjust to all the bumps along the way.

A few tips to help you feel better about your parenting

As parents we do the best we can with what we have. We know that the teenage brain is still developing and adapting, and that generally means they are better at finding their way through uncertainty than we are.

The best advice is simply be THERE for your teenager:

  • Be Truthful about how you feel. If your teen sees you withholding emotions, they might feel they need to behave the same way. What they need is to feel reassured that you will be okay. Knowing this, they’ll feel more comfortable and reassured.

  • Be Honest about what’s happening in the world. Keep information factual and simple. This builds trust. Nothing erodes trust more than your teenager finding out elsewhere that you weren’t honest with them.

  • Have Expectations that are realistic. Understand how your teen’s experiences are impacting their behaviour. Give them space and encourage open communication about what they feel they can and can’t do.

  • Be Responsive to their needs. If the communication channels are open, they will tell or show you they need space. They might seek reassurance or validation by sharing their worries, or reach out for physical connection, such as a hug.

  • Encourage relationships with others. Help support their connections with their friends and talk with them about their social network.

In general, we connect more easily with people we can understand. That’s why, even though it might feel strange, a bit of vulnerability with your teen can build trust. By being open with them about our own lives and sharing our own experiences, we can begin the healing process and get things back on track.

Trust me, if you’re reading articles like these you shouldn’t have to wonder whether you’re a good mum or dad. You’re already reflecting on and improving your parenting skills – something all good parents do.