Parenting: Why Is It So Darn Hard?

It’s 10:10 on Friday night. Your 16-year-old was supposed to be home by 10. You texted her at 10:05, and she didn’t respond. When giving her permission to go out with friends, you set clear ground rules. She was to check in when she got to her destination. If that changed, you were to be informed. And, she must be home no later than 10PM! On multiple occasions you have impressed upon her how important it is to be responsible, and that to build trust, people must be good to their word. Between 10:05 and 10:09 you formulate a clear plan of action. As soon as she gets home you will have a mature, level-headed, conversation about the need to be more responsible. At 10:11 your daughter walks through the door. She sees you, smiles, and says, “hi Mom.” You go off! “Where have you been? You were supposed to be home by 10. I texted you. Why didn’t you answer my text. You are irresponsible. You can’t be trusted. You are grounded for a week.” Your daughter stands there dumbstruck and clueless as to what brought your wrath down on her. Incredulous, your daughter looks at you, says, “This is bullshit,” storms up to her room and slams the door.

As it turns out, your daughter got a ride home from her friend’s mom who was 5 minutes late and then, they ran into some unexpected traffic. When you texted her at 10:05, she was in the middle of a conversation with her friend’s mom and didn’t see your text until she was a block from home. Thinking she would see you in just a few minutes, she didn’t bother to reply.

What Just Happened?

Even before learning of the circumstances of your daughter’s 12-minute late arrival, you realized that you had acted in complete opposition to what you had planned. Your intention was to impress upon her the importance of communication and responsibility. However, there was nothing mature or levelheaded about your behavior. Now, in addition to feeling guilty for needlessly berating your daughter, you failed to model mature, measured, and effective behavior. What occurred was not communication, but unworkable, reactive behavior fueled by worry and anger.

As I wrote in my “Hooked” blog (07/30/2023), fear and worry, and the thoughts associated with them, are unavoidable. This is true especially when it comes to our children. After all, the safety and well-being of our children is the most ingrained of all human instincts, even superseding our instinct for self-preservation. However, while such thoughts and emotions are all but unavoidable, having our behavior dictated by them is not.

When we find ourselves in stressful circumstances, most of us feel it is imperative to take control of what we perceive as a threatening or unacceptable situation. Most often we choose a course of action that we believe will put a quick end to our discomfort. In the above scenario, the problem was that you were reactive rather than responsive, and the behavior you chose was antithetical to providing an effective solution. Additionally, due to your heightened emotional state, your actions were in conflict with your values, that is, how you truly wish to behave.

Elements of Effective Parenting

Since Sigmund Freud addressed the issue in the late 1800’s, there has been a lot written about the influence of parenting on child development. When Googling “what are the characteristics of an effective parent,” I found such descriptors as loving, nurturing, protecting, teaching, mentoring. I’m hesitant to say this, but I personally liked an AI definition that popped up at the top of my Google search, “Effective parenting is the ability to engage with children in a way that helps them learn and grow into responsible adults. It involves a daily effort to connect with children on a personal level.” (For the record, this is the first time I have included any AI generated material in my blogs, and I will never utilize any AI generated content, or for that matter, any content that is not the product of this author, without a reference).

Clearly what it means to be an “effective parent” is a complex topic, and rife with the potential for debate. But I think we can all agree that, regardless of one’s views on the topic, parenting can be a very challenging undertaking. Our children are changing physically and emotionally, the environments in which they are functioning are also constantly changing, the nature of our relationship with them, let alone our relationship with ourselves changes, and the world that we inhabit is changing at what seems to be the speed of light. Facilitating a warm, loving, nurturing, validating, and productively communicative interaction between two unique and evolving individuals is, to say the least, a very complex and difficult undertaking. Add to this the challenge of doing this with our children during stressful moments, and the task can seem all but impossible. I view the endeavor to be an effective parent as analogous to running with a bow and arrow and trying to hit a moving target!


When I have asked parents, “Beyond good health, what is it that you most wish for your child?” the most frequent response I receive is, “I just want them to be happy and successful”. The other most frequent response I hear is, “I want them to find something they are passionate about.” On first blush, these goals appear quite clear, and as effective parents, outcomes we can help facilitate. But let’s take a closer look….

According to the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary, Happiness is defined as:

a: a state of well-being and contentment: joy

b: a pleasurable or satisfying experience.

By these definitions, I see happiness as impossible to define outside the context of the individual. Additionally, I would suggest that even if your child could define what it would mean for them to be content and in a state of well-being, this would most certainly change over the course of their life.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, Success is defined as:

a: a degree or measure of succeeding.

Could anything be more vague! Looking-up synonyms for success, I found flourishing, thriving, prosperous. Do these terms really help to better define what success would look like for an individual?

Finally, looking up the definition of passion, I found;

a. Intense emotion compelling action.

b. Emotional as distinguished from reason.

c. An overwhelming feeling or conviction

From this, it would seem that being passionate may not always be positive. Sometimes it involves going to extremes and acting unreasonably. And then a question might be, what is someone passionate about? One could be passionate about robbing banks!

I suggest that defining effective parenting by one’s ability to facilitate such global and difficult to define goals, greatly contributes to the difficulty of parenting. Embellishing my previous analogy, doing so makes the task of being an effective parent analogous to running with a bow and arrow and trying to hit a moving target, wearing a blindfold! You can’t hit what you can’t see, or at the very least, visualize.


With the objective of making it somewhat easier to hit the target, I am going to take the liberty of redefining effective parenting as:

The process of learning and effectively implementing a collection of skills, that increases a parent’s ability to have a warm, loving, nurturing, validating, and productively communicative relationship with their child.

By doing this, we now redefine the role of a parent as a facilitator, who is focused on implementing a process that will serve both their child and themselves throughout their lives together. It is much easier and realistic to try to define what a warm, loving, nurturing, validating and productively communicative relationship looks like than what a happy, successful, purposeful, and responsible life constitutes. As parents, if we can effectively communicate with our children, then regardless of the presenting challenge, you have a process, a blueprint by which to problem solve. Without this, the realization of goals of any nature (vague or specific) becomes a herculean task.

In my next blog I will address what skills go into creating such a process, but until then, I want to get you on your way to facilitating the kind of communication with your child that will cause you to be a more effective parent, regardless of your goals. You can start by practicing a skill that can be summarized by the acronym S.O.B.E.R. When confronted with challenging and stressful situations utilize the following:

S – Stop. Pretty obvious, whatever you were doing, or about to do, just take a pause. If you are in the middle of saying something, stop. If you are moving, walking, getting ready to leave, stop.

O – Observe. Step back and look at how you are feeling. Notice any physical sensations you may be having. Is your chest tight, do you feel tense? If so a where? Notice the thoughts you are having as well as the emotions associated with those thoughts. Are you angry, sad, frustrated, hurt? Do you feel anxious? Notice your surroundings. Where are you?

B – Breathe. Take note of your breath. Is it shallow, rapid? Close your mouth and take a long deep breath. See if you can inhale for at least four seconds. Then, see if you can hold your breath for at least four seconds. Next, exhale slowly through pursed lips. See if you can exhale longer than your inhale, perhaps seven seconds. Scan your body again for tension, then repeat the same breath sequence.

E – Expand. Here some therapists talk about further expanding your noticing, which is fine to do. However, I like to suggest taking time to notice your thoughts and see if you can think about what is happening from another perspective. As Dr. Russ Harris likes to say, see if you can “bring up the lights on the stage.” See all the players and the scenery and the musicians, not just the main actor. Notice there is a world out there, and there are things going on outside of your immediate experience. See if you can reduce any felt tension, and get in touch with any sense of lightness that might be available. Ask yourself, “Is the situation as dire as I am perceiving it?” “Does my sense of urgency match the needs of the situation?”

R – Respond. Now that you are aware of your thoughts, emotions, physiology, and surroundings, mindfully respond. That is, pay attention with openness, curiosity and above all else flexibility. See if you can bring a sense of lightness to the situation. Act in line with who and how you ideally wish to be.

Bottom line, the most important skills that a parent can have are, self-awareness and psychological flexibility. That is, to be aware of what you are bringing to each situation when you want to facilitate communication with your child. Given the extreme nature of the bond between ourselves and our children, I don’t believe any of us can always expect to be an effective communicator. But with practice, hopefully we can hit the target more often.

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