The 1 Thing That Therapists Say Harms Parents' Happiness Most

The good news is, there's something you can do about it.
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Journalist Jennifer Senior published a book in 2015 titled All Joy And No Fun. Her topic? Modern parenthood. The book went on to become a bestseller.

That this title resonated with so many readers is a testament to what Senior dubbed the “paradox of modern parenthood.”

While most of us consciously choose a path to parenthood, in some cases spending years orchestrating the ideal scenario in which to welcome a child, we aren’t always the happiest bunch as a demographic.

Stressed out? Overwhelmed? Exhausted? Yes, yes and yes.

Why hasn’t the most consequential decision in our lives brought us abundant happiness?

Some parents blame the lack of concrete social support for raising children (i.e. paid family leave, subsidised child care) for their struggles. Others are perhaps more willing to accept that the nature of the task means many of the rewards will be reaped in hindsight. The fulfilment of, say, running a marathon, doesn’t come at mile 20 — you have to actually make it to the finish line.

Arguably, there is no finish line for parenthood, but the course does change fairly drastically from one milestone to the next.

While there isn’t a way to hang on to happiness for the entire journey, there are things that we can do to recognise and appreciate those moments of joy when they come, as well as changes we can make in our outlook and expectations that will bring greater overall happiness to our lives.

HuffPost asked several therapists who specialise in working with parents what they see as the biggest obstacles to parents’ happiness — and how we might best avoid them.

The pressure to be perfect

Sarah Bren, a psychologist practicing in New York, believes that oftentimes what gets in the way of parents’ happiness are their impossibly high expectations.

“The thing that probably harms parents’ happiness the most is this pressure that we put on ourselves to be perfect,” she told HuffPost.

A belief “that our kids’ behaviour or our kids’ achievement or our kids’ happiness is our responsibility,” Bren told HuffPost, can leave us “always trying to accomplish this thing that we have actually not that much control over.”

Instead of feeling happy, we often feel defeated, or like we have failed. Repeated attempts to do something and then having it not work out can lead to a sense of “learned helplessness,” Bren explained, in which “we stop believing it’s possible and we give up.”

But we have the power to change this outcome. “One of the antidotes to that is to shift our orientation or our goal to something that is in our control, that we do have the capacity to impact with our efforts,” said Bren.

For example, while you can’t control your child’s happiness, there are smaller things that you can do to support their well-being.

“If I look at my goal in terms of, ‘What can I control?’ I can control how I show up, how I schedule my time, how I manage my bandwidth, so that when I’m with my kid, I’m able to have quality moments with them that might actually increase my child’s happiness,” said Bren.

If your child is struggling with something, you may not have the power to solve it for them. But you can go for a walk with them, turning off your phone and giving them 20 minutes of your undivided attention.

“If we orient ourselves to the outcome, it can feel futile, but if we orient ourselves to smaller steps within the process that might result in that outcome, then we can have more agency that can really help us feel that sense of capability and agency and satisfaction,” she said.

Rigid expectations of your child

The expectations that we have for our children can also be a problem.

“Having specific expectations about how a child should behave or what their temperament should be like” can set parents up for frustration, Neha Navsaria, a psychologist consultant with the Parent Lab and professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told HuffPost.

“When you have an expectation or goal for a child and are not flexible with it, this could lead to feelings of disappointment about yourself as a parent or disappointment in your child. There is also a sense of how others might view your child or how you parent,” she said.

“Figuring it out is parenting, not doing it right or doing it wrong, but figuring it out ... That’s how you know you’re parenting.”

- Mercedes Samudio, therapist and author

Sometimes, parents think back to their own childhood and make comparisons, which can impair their ability to connect with their child in the present.

“When a parent brings their past into a parenting interaction, it can color the way in which they understand their child’s experience of the moment. A comparison to the past may create strong feelings of resentment toward the child due to the thought that the child does not appreciate what they do have,” explained Navsaria.

She gave the example of a father who was struggling to understand his son’s sadness. “He said that his own father was barely there for him and not emotionally supportive. This father felt that he was doing so much for his son compared to his own father, so he felt his child had nothing to be stressed or upset about,” explained Navsaria.

She said they spoke about “how children’s sense of their world is based on their own experiences and that is the baseline from which they operate,” and how “they cannot put their own stress response in the context of a parent’s experience.” Reconsidering things from his son’s perspective, the father was able to validate his son’s feelings and be supportive.

“Parents need to be flexible and realistic when thinking about expectations for their children. It ultimately reduces their own frustration,” said Navsaria.

Navsaria also suggested asking a child what their intent was when they did something you disapprove of. Doing so “can often help confirm with a parent that a child actually has good intent, they just didn’t make the best choice.” Understanding this can help a parent see that the child was not acting out on purpose or being manipulative, reducing the parent’s feelings of frustration.

A feeling of shame

Therapist Mercedes Samudio, author of Shame-Proof Parenting, says that what often follows our failure to meet our own expectations is a sense of shame.

“Most parents say I want to parent better than my parents,” Samudio told HuffPost. “But for whatever reason, it fails, or it doesn’t go the right way. And then they begin to feel really embarrassed or really disappointed in themselves because that parenting strategy, the one that they had set their sights on, isn’t working for their kid, or even more so, it’s not working for the second or third kid it when it worked so well for the first.”

To combat this cycle, Samudio says, first, “you really have to have a lot of empathy for yourself.” Second, she recommends that parents come to terms with the fact that their job doesn’t consist of overcoming one obstacle and then moving on to a life of smooth sailing. The struggle itself — the not knowing what to do — is what defines parenting.

“Figuring it out is parenting, not doing it right or doing it wrong, but figuring it out ... That’s how you know you’re parenting, because you’re struggling with these types of decisions,” she explained.

Parents being aware of their own needs, having confidence in the things they do well and knowing how to find support are all things that may not always lead to happiness, but can ward off those feelings of shame.

“I tell parents, you can’t always be happy, but you can mitigate those really unhappy moments” or times where “you feel you have failed as a parent.”

Social media

Like Bren and Navsaria, Samudio believes that in order to find happiness as parents, we have to be willing to revise our own expectations.

In this regard, she said, social media, with the endless comparisons that it invites, can do us more harm than good.

“I think social media also gets in the way of parents’ happiness,” she said. “You’re scrolling, you’re seeing everyone’s curated parenting decisions” without the context of everything else that’s going on in their lives, which certainly isn’t all perfect. “Social media just becomes another source of expectation,” and oftentimes an unrealistic one.

Getting off of social media entirely may not be possible, and the last thing parents need is one more unrealistic expectation they may fail to meet.

Samudio does advise parents to “pay attention to how you start to feel” after a few minutes of scrolling on the app of your choice. If you understand how social media is affecting you, you take away some of its power to dictate your happiness.

For example, if you start feeling bad about what you’re feeding your kids after looking at photos of perfect meals that influencers are posting, you can remind yourself that your worth as a parent isn’t measured in little sandwiches shaped like dinosaurs.

There are a lot of things you do for your kid every day, and it is this fact of showing up again and again and doing your best — even when it’s far from perfect — that makes you a good parent, one who deserves to look at the relationship you’re building with your child and feel some pride and happiness.