Should Parents be Happy While Their Kids are Doing Poorly?

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast:

Should Parents Be Happy While Their Kids Are Doing Poorly?

Episode 030 · Duration: 00:13:44



Should Parents Be Happy While Their Kids Are Doing Poorly?

Are you unhappy because your son or daughter is going in the wrong direction? Today we’re answering a question from Stefania, of Sacramento, CA.

Stefania writes:

Should Parents be Happy While Their Kids are Doing Poorly?My husband and I have a son (17) who has been struggling in high school. He’s quite bright, but over the past few years he’s quit applying himself. He’s hanging around with a group of kids who smoke marijuana and he fights us at every turn. We’ve taken everything away from him, but he doesn’t seem to care. We’ve offered him anything he wants if he would only do his work. Here’s my problem. My husband is so upset about this situation that he’s miserable almost all the time. His work is suffering and he tells our son how much he loves him every day. He keeps offering solutions to our son like going to live with our relatives in Poland, or studying abroad, and our son acts interested, but won’t follow through on anything. Here’s my question. I know we all love our children and I truly want to help our son. But should we be miserable if he’s not doing well? I want to have a more normal life, but my husband is so distraught, that our lives and our happiness are on hold. We have another son 3 years younger and I don’t think it’s fair to him either. Am I wrong to want my own happiness independently from my son? Or am I just callous and I should be more upset like my husband?

Thanks for this fascinating question, Stephania. Your question makes me think about how we should feel about our children’s emotional states or direction. I was pondering that question on my morning jog around the harbor this morning when I ran into my friends, Ian and Pamela, and brought it up to them.

Pamela is an esteemed colleague of mine and the mother of two successfully grown daughters. She said, “I always have strong feelings about how they feel, but I try not to let it show. But even then, it’s hard. For instance, when they were dating someone I knew was the wrong person for them, I would bite my tongue to not say anything but would often hear from her: ‘I know what you’re thinking.’ You can’t win,” she said.

I get the point Pamela, and of course, you’re right. When our kids are doing well, we feel good. When they’re not, we worry and feel less good. In fact, research bares this out. When our kids, including adult kids, are doing well, parents feel good. When they aren’t…well, less so.

You’re Not Alone In This

In raising our children and teens (and for that matter young adults), we want them to learn and gain experience dealing with their feelings and making choices. In order to do that, they need to experience the full range of feelings and experience the outcomes from their choices. Sometimes those outcomes are imposed by us, their parents: like taking away a privilege or simply saying no to a request. Sometimes those outcomes are imposed by their friends, their teachers and coaches, and the world at large. Heck, even gravity imposes consequence. Of course, as parents we want them to feel good and make good choices. But it is simply unrealistic to think that they can feel good and make good choices all of the time. We all know that that is simply not how life works. In real life, when our kids make poor decisions, we often get upset with them about it. That’s normal, and if I or any other psychology type tell you it’s bad, well, too bad for us, because it’s just plain normal.

It's unrealistic to think that kids can feel good & make good choices all of the time.Click To Tweet

But here’s the rub, if our feelings about their choices, and our feelings about their feelings overwhelm them on a regular basis, it will interfere with their ability to process their experiences and get to know themselves better. It will interfere with their ability to grow, learn and build confidence. That’s why Pamela held back with her opinions about her daughter’s relationship choices.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that parents shouldn’t set limits and hold kids accountable for their behavior. Limit-setting is a critical parental function. I’m only talking about overwhelming our kids with our emotions and feelings about their behavior.

How Parents Can Make Children Feel Overwhelmed

The most common way we think about parents overwhelming their kids with parental responses is by getting angry at their mistakes. When that anger becomes a chronic response, that will spell problems. Yet sometimes parents overwhelm their kids by trying too hard to fix their problems and behavior. That might be part of what we call helicopter parenting, but basically I’m talking about when, as parents, we try to make things right for our kids whenever they fail or experience a problem or are unhappy. Once again, who among us doesn’t try to cheer our kids up or advocate for them? Most child-oriented parents do. We do it out of love, and when it’s age appropriate, it’s great; when it’s not overdone that is.

So the bottom line is, yes, we have feelings about our kid’s choices and their emotional states, we care and we feel for them. Also, we express and act on our feelings. But when we overdo it, several negative things happen that run the risk of interfering in our children’s development.

  1. Our feelings and actions become an extra factor for our kids to deal with. As I said, they need to deal with their feelings and reactions in order to learn and grow. When they have to focus on our feelings and our reactions, this will rob them of the ability to tune into and process their own experiences.
  2. It runs the risk of injuring self-esteem and self-confidence. Kids will feel that we don’t have faith in them. When parents get chronically upset, and respond either with anger or helpfulness when kids don’t meet their expectations, they start to feel that there’s something wrong with them and that there is no room for failure. Well, failure, of course, is a normal part of life and is a frequent companion to learning, and if kids think their failures prove there is something wrong with them, then it’s guaranteed they will think there is something wrong with them.
  3. If parents come to the rescue and find solutions to their children’s problems and run to make them happy, it interferes with a kid’s capacity for independence and ultimately makes them dependent on others for their happiness.
  4. When we overreact emotionally, either with anger and rejection, or by being depressed and distraught, it creates Control Battles and invites more negative behavior and acting out. Many kids will feel over-controlled and act out as a way to take control. Sometimes they will avoid making healthy choices because it’s making their parents right, and them wrong, or giving in and letting their parents win. Once a Control Battle based pattern like this has developed, it takes on a life of its own and will encourage the parents to continue to over-react, and kids to continue to act out. By the way, acting out can take many forms from staying out late and substance abuse, to self-cutting or self-starving.
  5. Another negative outcome for chronically finding ways for our kids to be happy, is they will think of happiness as an entitlement. Whatever we’ve done to make them happy, bowls of ice cream or bought gifts, they can easily come to use those indulgences as a means to a false sense of happiness as adults.
  6. Finally, when parents go up and down with their kid’s ups and downs, it gives too much power to a kid’s negative behavior and will inevitably wear parents out and parental burnout will result.
Failure is a normal part of life and is a frequent companion to learning.Click To Tweet

The Importance of Parental Happiness

So, Stefania. The answer to your question “Am I wrong for wanting my own happiness independently from my son” is no. You are absolutely not wrong for wanting your own happiness. In fact, if you were my client, I’d prescribe ‘having your own happiness‘ to you and your husband. I say that because it’s critical to your son’s recovery.

Right now, your son and your husband are in a profound control battle and as long as your son’s behavior has the power to make your husband miserable, nothing is likely to change. In fact, things could get worse given that your son is getting ready to enter his young adult years and is acting out rather than preparing appropriately.

I urge you to find a good family therapist in your area who can help your family build some healthy emotional boundaries and starve that beastly control battle. If either your husband or your son gives you grief about going, simply tell them it isn’t an option and if you’re the only one who shows up, so be it. The therapist can help you and that will actually make a good start on changing everything else. After all, even though you see the problem as between your husband and your son, you are undoubtedly playing a role in the family dynamic that supports the problem. You represent ¼ of the family and as the Mom, that’s a pretty big 1/4th. If you change, that will impact everything else.

Listeners, let’s remember that we all have our own life journey, even our children and teenagers. We will, of course, have our own feelings about what they’re doing and how they’re doing. But we don’t want our emotions to become the focus of their journey. Let’s keep having faith in their abilities to learn, grow, and mature. That’s a critical part of us helping them do just that.

We all have our own life journey, even our children & teenagers.Click To Tweet

Thanks for tuning in today, listeners, and thanks to Stephania from Sacramento, CA for inviting this discussion.

If you haven’t already, grab a copy of my book, Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle. Many readers have told me it is the least expensive and best counseling session they’ve ever had.

And if you are enjoying my podcast, please stop over to my iTunes site Healthy Family Connections. Click on ratings and reviews, and write a brief review.

And please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.


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Is It A Control Battle?
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