Confession: Parenting is Hard (Even for the Experts)

By , Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt, Ph.D.
Even though I consider myself to be a parenting expert, with multiple degrees on my wall and years of research under my belt, no textbook or research study could ever prepare me for my role as a parent.

A couple of weeks ago, my 8-year-old son had an outburst (that’s what I’ve termed it), which could be likened to a 3-year-old tantrum with a 13-year-old attitude.  I told him to go to his room.  He answered, ''I am not going to my room.''  I tried to calmly explain that there would be consequences for his behavior.  To this, he responded, ''I don’t care.''  I reminded him that his behavior was rude and inappropriate.  He replied, ''No, yours is.''  Through all of this, he went between being defiant and crying.  We covered a lot of ground.  As I went along, I searched my brain using terms like ''discipline,'' ''defiance,'' ''authoritative parenting.''  My searches eventually came back with ''no results found.''  I was at a complete loss.

Within a couple of days of my realization that parenting was more difficult than I thought and that I was the model for failed parenting, I happened to be on the phone with my friend and colleague who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and two school-aged children of her own.  I learned that our boys, who are six months apart, had both recently relocated to a parallel universe. And, quite frankly, we were both stumped.

It was not until a week or so after the outburst (and some serious consequences and follow-up discussions) that I learned that there are times when we simply do not know what to do as a parent.  We do the best we can.  We try to remain calm.  We try to be the adult and maintain control.  We remind ourselves just how much we love that little person who transformed into another person before our eyes.  We pray.  We bargain.  But sometimes, our heads do spin and the world seems completely out of control.  And I am here to tell you that it's okay

My advice this week is to forgive yourself for those moments when you did not have the answer.  For every 100 episodes we face with our children, there will undoubtedly be a few in which we find ourselves utterly clueless about how to respond in order to have the appropriate impact.  Be a parent; do the best you can.  But, remember, sometimes you just need to give yourself a break and know there will be a next time to redeem yourself!   

Have your kids ever ''stumped'' you?  How did you handle it?  Are you forgiving of yourself?  Or, do you think too long and too hard about those moments when you maybe didn’t do the right thing or didn’t act quickly enough in the moment?    

Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt is Chairperson of the Department of Psychology at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on social and emotional development in childhood and adolescence. She has published research on parent-child attachment, friendship, peer relations, bullying, and mentoring. She has also done consulting work with schools as part of their bullying prevention and intervention programs. Michelle recently published the book Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence (Guilford Press), which explores the significance of friendship from toddlerhood through adolescence. The book examines factors that contribute to positive friendships, how positive friendships influence children’s lives, and interventions for those who have friendship difficulties. Michelle is the mother of a 7-year-old son, William, and a 2-year-old bulldog named Eve. She enjoys yoga, kayaking, writing, and cooking.

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GINA180847 12/6/2020
I raised 4 and they were all so different. There are so many things happening that we cannot understand but we must never stop loving them even when they say they don't love us anymore. The best thing I did was have a happy life in spite of some of their bad behavior as I figure my example is important. Report
REDROBIN47 12/6/2020
Good information. Thank you. Report
1CRAZYDOG 12/6/2020
The pre-teen and teen years are hard, to say the least! My kids are now 28 and 25 and I'm STILL trying to sort through their teens years.

AZMOMXTWO 12/6/2020
thank you Report
CECTARR 12/6/2020
Thanks - I call it frustration not stumped Report
LEANJEAN6 12/6/2020
Parenting IS hard--rewarding tho! Report
Hardest job one can ever take on. Report
KHDOESMK 12/6/2020
We are grandparents raising our GREAT granddaughter. She is fraught with many problems. We are now doing "Neuro mapping therapy" but add to this the home schooling component and at times I am ready to lose my mind. Beating myself up for failure has become too frequent. I just finished reading "The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog," and can see many of her issues there.

Thank you for your article. Report
RO2BENT 12/6/2020
Punishment/discipline can be discussed with cooler heads Report
CD3802882 12/6/2020
As hard as it is to stop and take a deep breath in the middle of a child’s outburst, it is necessary for both of you. I’ve found that if you can get your child to take a couple of deep breaths, it can make a big difference. The reason for the outburst may have nothing to do with the topic at hand. Is he tired, hungry, thirsty? Did something happen at school or while he was playing? I used to switch it up a little. I would ask him if he knows how much I love him. The children I’ve dealt with basically need to know 2 things. One, do you love me no matter what? Secondly, what is going to happen to me? Active listening may be hard to do when your child is having a temper tantrum but it is helpful to understand why the child is having the outburst. If the child is tired, he may not even know why but if you can figure out why, it gives you the upper hand. Report
PIKA1319 12/6/2020
it's called punishment/discipline. Interesting that the author states she just stood there and let the child run its mouth and supposedly couldn't think of anything to do. A pop in the mouth or some soap will cure mouthiness! NO, it is NOT abuse, period. Carried to EXTREMES, punishment/discipline can be abusive, but a little bit is not! I received spankings (including with belts) as well as soap and oh, look, I'm perfectly fine - have a job, a successful marriage, never been in trouble with the law, never drank/smoke/did drugs, etc. So, yes, discipline works! Report
NEPTUNE1939 12/6/2020
ty Report
FERRETLOVER1 12/6/2020
Thank you. Report
LIS193 12/6/2020
Thank you! Report
JANIEWWJD 12/6/2020
Thanks for such a good article!!! Report
Great info! Thanks for sharing!!!!!!! Report
Great ?? Report
Great ?? Report
Need vacations from adulting all day Report
thanks Report
My mom made us sit in the corner for about 15 minutes to think about our misbehavior. Report
My three year old seems to almost enjoy the tantrums she has when she screams for something (a hug) then says "no not now" so when I say thats fine, she screams she wants the hug... so no matter what my answer is (yes, come for hug, or ok, lets wait) I am wrong and she screams.... Report
Our 14-year-old daughter is a dream. Do we screw up sometimes? Sure. Does she get that parenting is hard and forgive us? Thankfully, yes. We freely admit that we don't always get it right and sometimes she calls us on it, but always respectfully and appropriately. When she's right, we admit it. We also let her call the shots when she should, and we lay down the law when she shouldn't. 14 is early, and things may change, but at this point I don't think so...
My husband and I have both worked in pediatric hospitals (I still do after 20+ years) and we've seen the entire spectrum of parent/child relationships. I can't imagine having a better kid. Having a two-way line of communication--honest, respectful communication--is absolutely the key. Report
My boys are now 19 and 21. Thank God! I am back to the point of enjoying their company!! The teen years were truly challenging even though they were good kids. They just have such mood swings and hormone surges it gets to be exhausting! My friend told me once that raising teenagers is like nailing jello to a tree... Report
Thank you for sharing this. I took parenting and child developement in high school, read many parenting magazines and books, kept kids for family members in my teenage years, studied child developemnt in college and obtained childcare credentials, worked in a childcare facility as a lead teacher with various age groups. I did well with everyone's children. I had such a hard time with my own. For years I wondered what was wrong with me or was something wrong with my kids. Now I know we are normal. Thank you. :) Report
Thank you Popeye the turtle! As mothers, you can't use a "female"communication style to get a message across to boys (or men for that matter). As women we like to have input from all concerned parties, talk, talk and talk some more and then try to come to a general consensus that leaves everyone feeling ok. Nope. Not when I'm the person in charge. Sometimes it's "Mom's way is the only way." We might discuss it later...

Everybody (including 8 year old boys) has things that they enjoy, interests, things that are important to them. With my boys, every new "thing" or activity became an weapon in my arsenal. I rarely spanked/swatted them but they knew that a favorite toy, game, or TV show might become off limits if they misbehaved. I wouldn't make a big deal out of taking things away from them; I just got straight to the point, no discussion. I didn't (and still don't) believe in the "3 strikes" method of thinking. If I'm telling you to stop doing something, that is strike one, two and three. If I had to tell you again, then oh well, you got what you got. Usually I could just give them a warning..."Ok, keep it up and see what happens." What was going to happen was already in my mind, but I didn't tell them. I'd leave the video game console but take the controllers away or I'd leave the computer but take away the keyboard. It's really really hard to play a video game with no controls.

I did have to swat my younger son on the behind when he refused to hold my hand in parking lots (he's always been really old for his age; he told me he could stay home by himself when he was 4 years old). I thought it better to swat his rear rather than have him get run over by a car!

And if you think I was hard, then yes, I'll accept that. Here's my rationale: if they did something out of line or illegal in "the real world," how many chances were they going to get? If a cop tells you to stop and put your hands up, you don't get a number of opportunities to comply. Not cooperating from the start can lead to deadly consequences.

Also, it's easier to loosen the reins, so to speak, as they grow older. You can't give them freedom to do or say whatever they want at age 5 and then scratch your head when they won't obey you at 15. It just won't work. And yes, I just used that ancient term "obey."

You also have to know your children. What works for one may not work for another. My older son HATED to be sent to sit in another room; he was (and still is) more talkative, gregarious and social. In contrast, his younger brother would have LOVED to have been sent to his room. He was (and still is) very much a quiet loner who enjoyed shutting himself up in his room and being by himself. The younger one, I would make stay right by my side or help me with chores, which he didn't like. He wanted to be left alone, but I wouldn't do that! Sorry, but if solitude is what you like, then you don't get any.

The other thing that really kept me focused was to believe in what I termed my family mission statement; that we ALL respect each other. We are not always going to like each other, but we can still respect each other. I never talked to my parents any which way, even when I was grown and had children of my own. I wouldn't allow my sons to disrespect me, their father, or each other (or rather, you'd better not let me hear it!). I expected everyone to respect each other. I might disagree with my husband, or he with me, but there is always that level of respect.

By the way, my sons are now are young men who live at home (one works full time, saving his money and the other is a full time college student) and we get along very well. I enjoy them still being around the house. But to this day if their dad tells them to take care of a chore, they do it right away...with me, it might take a little while longer, but I'm ok with that. Report
From what I've seen on the previous comments, the main "problems" are mostly confined to two words, "sons" and "boys".

I was raised back in the dark ages (before Dr. Spock), and corporal punishment for boys was the norm after a certain point. Even though I raised two sons during the start of the no corporal punishment era. my sons needed an occasional "pop" or two to get their attention.

What mom's seem to forget is that they think differently than men or boys do. Mom's, like all women, strive for a consensus and are so very concerned with "feelings" that they can often confuse boys, and the men in their lives. Women circle around a subject and come at it from multiple directions. Boys and men don't understand that sort of action. OK, there are some men who do, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Ladies, have you ever had your husband, father or significant other tell you, "Just get to the point"? It's because men see the problem, focus on the problem, find an answer and go directly to solve the problem.

Also, most women don't realize boys brain-flow and emotions are filtered through their backside up until a certain age, then those "emotions" just rotate towards the front.

My oldest son initially totally followed my DIL's wishes on parenting. It didn't work at all until he reached three, and by 4 1/2 my grandson realized that no matter how badly he acted, there were no consequences that he couldn't handle. Setting him in the corner facing the wall? He told himself stories, out loud. Send him to his room and tell him he couldn't play with his toys? That worked until my son or DIL left the room, or he simly laid down and napped the designated time away.

The only time his behavior changed was when Grandpa (me) was around. If he was acting like a little brat, my voice would rise and he would get the "Grandpa Glare" and his actions would change. After about a year, Grandpa's glare started to wear off. One day, while babysitting, his behavior towards his younger sister was absolutely unconscionable. I took him by the hand and quick marched him to his bedroom, closed the door and, with a loud voice, told him his actions were unacceptable and proceeded to tell him what would happen if he continued to treat his sister in such a manner. When I got to the escalating punishment that mentioned corporal punishment (swats on the backside), he really paid attention. When my son got home, I told him what I had done, and considering their parenting style, if they'd rather I not come over again, I'd accept that (it would have broken my heart, but I would have done it).

My son told me that he had become very frustrated with my grandsons behavior and that he sometimes just had to leave the house because of the lack of response to reason, and he thanked me for helping my grandson understand that consequences escalated to where that punishment would include corporal punishment.

In no case do I want to include as corporal punishment any punishment that involves leaving bruises or blood - no switches, no swats except on the seat of their pants. Boys just barely understand logical reasoning and emotional pleas by the time they get to high school. "IF" they are very studious during those years (and playing sports is a big part of learning discipline), they have a good base to stand on.

Corporal punishment also prepares them for the real world. From grade school on, they are going to face bullies and idiots. At some point, they (boys) will have to use corporal punishment to protect themselves.

Ladies, just take a moment to think on your mans non-work likes. Is he drawn to reading poetry, going to the ballet and symphonies - or is he a hunter, a guy who likes watching football, basketball, boxing or ice hockey on television. Does he like to be outside playing softball, lifting weights or other "manly" things like heavy yard work?

For boys, and men, you can accomplish much, but from the very first, you have to initially get their attention.

raising girls is completely another story. When my two granddaughters got old enough to understand reason and logic, they were also old enough to know the power of tears. FACT: There is a pheromone in women and girls tears that generally make men less volatile. That's the main reason that daughters and granddaughters can wrap us around their little fingers.

Oh yeah. If you use tears in a difference of opinion (or "fights") with your man - we think you are fighting dirty.

PS: I love every one in my family, DIL, sons, wife and grandchildren. But if anyone ever hurt them - it would be "Katie, bar the door". If that phrase is something you don't understand, ask someone who grew up in the south or west and are over 55. Report
I have great respect for those individuals who have earned degrees, and even advanced degrees in child development courses. My grandmother, however, raised eight children as a single mother (no college degree). Her children were disciplined with love and with religion. All of them became outstanding men and women of integrity. Wow! Report
I agree with Sara.Sunhouse and found it helpful to concentrate on what was best, in God's eyes for my child and not my own reputation or what someone would think of me.
When totally stumped, I tried to do two things: pray (God, you gave me this child, now please tell me how to parent him), and try to imagine modeling the kind of behavior I want him to emulate (We solve problems by talking it out, not by running away. It's OK to be mad, but it's not OK to call other people names. It's OK to take time out, but it's not OK to refuse to set a time to deal with the problem.)

Thank God, our grown kids are all doing well. As my mother-in-law used to say, "Little children, little problems; big children, big problems." And I always try to remember that "It ain't over till it's over." In other words, this too, shall pass. Report
I have five grown children who have turned out well. I always allowed them to get mad and say what they were feeling, even when I didn't like to hear it. I never was allowed to get mad as a child and "backtalk" my mother, so I was determined to let my children tell me when they were angry or upset. It paid off well for me and them. Now my GD is six months old and I already ask her daily "tell me how you are FEELING today, is your diaper to tight and making you mad?" LOL You can't have good self-esteem if u hold in how u feel, but u do need to learn how to express yourself without yelling or saying fowl words. Report
Thankfully, my sons are now 37 and 31--one was easy, one hard. I can only say that, as a single parent, I was consistent. That may not be all good, but I was at least predictable. I often questioned whether I was doing the "right" thing; the real answer is that no two are alike and, in the moment, decisions are made that later may seem like a bad response to an already bad situation. I made mistakes...they knew it and I knew it...but they love me and I them. Report
Welcome to my world! My seven kids are 8 to 23. The only thing I can tell you is that they are all different and they all grow up. I love my adult son and we actually like each other again. It was iffy during those teenage years. I now have 4 teenagers - my daughter is severely disabled, so she is a piece of cake. The boys all have developmental issues, so they are doubly challenging.

To all of us, I say good luck and they do leave eventually! Report
I'm so glad to hear that this is something other parents experience. My sons are 12 and 14 and I'm stumped a lot. People always tell me that teenage girls are harder but I have my doubts right now. Report
Stumped ? sometime that did not even come close ,and i have a child develeopment background too, pre school and special ed teacher.
I stil remember the" LALALALALALALA i am not listening to you"

But as you said we must forgive ourselves (and them) they still love us and we them.