Scared you're going to mess your kids up? You will - I'm a family psychotherapist and here's why that is totally okay

Let's normalise that parenting isn't about being perfect

two kids lying and laughing
(Image credit: Getty Images)

We fear ‘messing up our children’, we worry that they too may one day need therapy due to our parenting fails. But I truly believe this fear, of giving our kids a reason to seek therapy, is harming our parenting.

By the very nature of being a complex human in a complex world, bringing up complex humans in a complex world, we will ‘mess up’ our kids. I’ve spent the majority of my life as a perfectionist. I’ve held the bar of self-expectation high and felt an insatiable desire to be the best at everything, from friendship to running. We can just about scrape by on perfectionist ways in our life pre-kids. After all, perfectionism is praised in our culture, as it produces good work and neat people who 'fall in line'.

However, in the most humbling, messy way, I have learnt that perfectionism categorically does not translate to parenting. As a Psychotherapist to parents and a mother to three, I’ve also learnt that ironically, perfectionism in parenting hampers the ability to bring up healthy, happy children. In this article I am going to talk you through four things;

  1. Why we feel fearful about messing up our kids
  2. The impact this fear has
  3. How to quell the fear
  4. How to minimise the mess!

You will mess your kids up and here's why

Parents in my clinic bring to me two main reasons; information overload and too much self-insight.

Information overwhelm. A recent study explored the impact of the overwhelming amount of parenting advice we have available. It concluded that those who feel worried about their parenting are more likely to search for answers online, yet those who spend a lot of time researching parenting advice, don’t actually report an increase in parenting confidence.

You see, in many ways we live in a privileged digital age where we have access to a never-ending amount of information on how to ‘do’ parenting right. We are told the ‘correct’ way to respond in each scenario, given scripts to repeat in the face of particular challenges and have the voices of experts in our ears telling us how to nurture well-rounded and mentally thriving children. And we want that, we really want that. But the fact of the matter is, that so much of the information is conflicting (baby led weaning vs puree, sleep training vs co-sleeping, gentle parenting vs naughty steps, and on it goes).

When we’re tired, frazzled, anxious and hunting for answers, we could be fooled to feel like that being a ‘good’ parent is like walking along a tightrope, and when you fail, you fall. You’ve broken your child and you might as well start saving for therapy now.

Too much self-insight. There’s no question that as a generation, we have a growing level of self-insight nurtured through books and podcasts. We are understanding how family dynamics impacted us, we are challenging narratives and reshaping inner dialogues. We are dismantling shame and tackling generational patterns.

With increased awareness of our own internal chaos, can come an increased awareness of how we shape our child’s. Applying perfectionism to our own growth and development is as unhelpful as it is when we apply it to parenting. We are highly complex humans; we will continue to be impacted by the world around us and the memories we hold in both conscious and unconscious ways. We will always have hidden depths and dimensions beyond our own awareness.

1. Why we feel fearful about messing up our kids

There are countless reasons as to why you might feel scared of 'messing up' your kids, and find yourself aiming high as a parent. (I write at length about perfectionism in my book Know Your Worth, £7.99, Amazon) should you want to explore this). Of course, we want to love and parent to the best of our ability. It’s normal to want to love well. However, as a family psychotherapist, so many parents I work with struggle with the constant self-questioning of ‘Am I good enough’? And I often wonder whether, in truth, are we really asking ‘Am I perfect?’

In truth, there are many ways to parent. And as we will talk about in a moment, a perfect parent firstly doesn’t exist, and secondly would not prepare a child to navigate a wholly imperfect world. I love parenting experts (follow Dr Becky and Dr Martha for starters) who give sound parenting advice at the same time as proclaiming that they have messy moments too. It’s both helpful and reassuring, and splinters the fantasy that we must do right, all the time. As Dr Becky shared in her episode on my podcast, that there’s so much power in repair.

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2. The impact this fear has

Consider how your empathy has been shaped by the pain and losses you’ve experienced. Consider how tricky conflicts have taught and strengthened you. Consider how what you’ve witnessed of other’s responses and behaviours has inspired and grown your understanding of the world. I’ll bet you’ll have learnt far more through hardships and challenges than you have the joyous moments. In the same way, our children grow to be well-rounded humans not through the lack of hardship, but through how they learn to deal with them.

When we mess up, they can learn about taking responsibility where it is due, through how we take responsibility. When we hold boundaries and witness their disappointment, they learn that they can handle uncomfortable feelings. When we apologise for joining them in their meltdown, they learn about the importance of apology and the limits of human capacity. These are all vital lessons for life.

3. How to quell the fear

The benefits of coming to terms with the fact that your kids may well need therapy one day…to talk about you are varied. When you worry about messing up your kids you can actually find yourself stifled from moving forward in a way that is helpful and productive. But when you accept that your histories, mysteries, hidden depths, toxic traits and traumas will touch your children sometimes, then you’ll benefit in these three ways:

You’ll get the support you need: So many parents I work with ask at some point ‘how can I make sure I don’t pass my anxiety on to my child?’. My answer is always this ‘YOU are deserving of addressing the anxiety for YOUR ease and enjoyment of life! As a wonderful side-effect, your child will benefit anyway! Fear stifles us from action, whereas acceptance of our own inner chaos means that we’re more likely to find ways to address and take responsibility for our own wellbeing.

Parents and young child smiling on the sofa

(Image credit: Getty Images)

You’ll have more energy: Perfectionism is exhausting, as is the fear of getting it wrong. Naturally our brains have a negativity bias, so we’re more likely to look over the day and recognise where things didn’t go so well, than those moments we bossed it. But as you set the bar of ‘perfect’ to ‘good enough’ then you’ll free up some headspace and sidestep the cruel inner critic.

You’ll feel less guilt as you befriend ‘good enough’: Psychoanalyst parenting expert Winnicott studied thousands of mothers and knew the emotional, physical and mental energy required to raise these small people. He summarised that the way to be a good mother, is to be a ‘good enough’ mother. In the same encouraging vein, in her research Dr Woodhouse concludes that parents and caregivers only need get things ‘right’ 50% of the time to fulfil a babies need for attachment. So, as you try to be a good parent rather than a perfect one, you’ll feel less of the guilt that sits in the gap between being the parent you can be, to being the idealised one you pressure yourself to be.

4. How to minimise the 'mess'

As you try to be a good parent rather than a perfect one, you’ll feel less of the guilt what sits in the gap between being the parent you can be, to being the idealised one you pressure yourself to be.

How to be the ‘good enough’ parent

Know that you will fail your child - You will fail your child in big and small ways over the years. From the times you drop them at the school gate and your hearts sink as you see everyone holding an art project that you overlooked, to the times you wildly lose your calm and a torrent of harmful words spill out that you wish you could suck back in.

When we come to terms with the fact that sometimes our parenting will fall well below the mark of ‘good enough’, then we can equip ourselves with ways to repair and reconnect when those circumstances arise. As we’ve mentioned, how we navigate those moments of repair and reconnection are opportunities to teach our children so much. Many clients I work with don’t remember a parent apologising to them, yet as a generation we are seeking to take responsibility for the times we mess up, and the therapeutic power of this shouldn’t be underestimated.

"When we're tired we could be fooled to feel like that being a ‘good’ parent is like walking along a tightrope, and when you fail, you fall."

Put the blinkers on. - When you find yourself on Google seeking for an article, or a voice to tell you what to do in a particular situation, or witness yourself scrolling through social media for reassurance that you’re doing a great job, stop. Take a deep breath, still yourself, and listen to your gut. What feels right in this moment? What feels like the right thing to do for you and your child and your family?

One of the tips I often give my clients who are struggling to make a decision is ‘what would you do if nobody knew?’. This strips away the noise that fear of judgement or desiring to please others adds to our decision-making process, and helps us get in touch with our gut sense of what is right. Because the thing is, it’s great and often wise to seek advice, but feeling overwhelmed by it can often fuel that perfectionist sense of ‘right and wrong’ and have us overlooking that small voice inside that knows more than we give it credit for.

And if you make a wrong decision? Well, give yourself some grace. You did the best you could with what you had and knew at the time. And who every enjoyed a life rich in adventure and learning that got everything right all the time?

Let guilt be your guide. - When guilt arises, as let’s face it, it often does, ask yourself what it might be prompting you to do. I recently did a TedX talk sharing a 3-step technique for parenting guilt, but when it comes to the worry about messing up your kids, and seeking a more realistic set of expectations, let guilt guide you. Ask yourself, is this guilt justified? Have I actually done anything wrong? So often, the guilt we feel is unjust and if a friend uttered that they felt guilty over similar things we’d want to usher them out of that guilt. Guilt for how your birth went, or the feeding journey you too, guilt for not spotting an intolerance quickly, or not recognising the symptoms of an illness you didn’t even know existed? It’s unjustified, choose to let it go.

However, guilt can be a great guide to good enough parenting. It often acts as a signal to us that we are acting out of line of our values in some way. Perhaps you feel guilty that your child has had a little more screentime than usual, or that you’re having to return to work after parental or maternity leave earlier than you’d have liked. In this instance, instead of moving into the self-shaming state of ‘I’m a rubbish parent’, let the guilt prompt you to readdress boundaries, initiate spending some focussed quality time with your child, or shift your list of priorities or to-dos. When we let guilt guide us into action or change rather than shame us with self-criticism, it be productive. And once its served its purpose, then just as with unjustified guilt, choose to let it go.

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Focus on presence over perfection. - So often, I’m racing around the kitchen clearing up the mess and my daughter is lounging on the sofa asking me to join her. Do I continue on and meet my need for order and getting stuff done? Or do I put the vacuum down and dive amidst the cushions for a cuddle? It’s the question we face in so many different scenarios in parenting, and there’s no escaping that there’s an endless amount of stuff to do.

But remember Dr Woodhouse’s 50%? It’s good to recall in these moments. Sometimes it’s about ticking something off the list to relieve the pressure, and sometimes it’s about sweeping up a little bundle of stickiness that won’t be little forever. When we pour energy into perfect parenting, we have to overlook so many of those little moments and opportunities to engage with the children we’re trying so hard to parent perfectly. Instead, when we aim for that ‘good enough’, we can recoup some time that would otherwise be spent striving, to slow, to hold, to laze alongside the little people we love so much.

Remember this when you’re next facilitating the fun. If you’re sat on the side-lines with the sandwiches, or overseeing the party and ensuring everyone has fun, put yourself into the fun too. My sons will never forget the time I threw off my layers and joined them in the cold British sea in torrential rain. In that moment I decided to shun the worries of wet, sandy clothes or spend my energy sheltering under the nearest tree bellowing at them to come out of the water. I decided to shun perfect for presence, and they’ll never forget the fact that I joined them squealing in the water, and neither will I.

The main takeaway

So, you’ll mess up your kids and so will I, it’s inescapable. But as you fear this a little less, you may well find yourself engaging in and enjoying the mess a little more, and therefore the ‘messing up’ may well be less messy. For parenting is both brutal and beautiful, and we can only hope that by loving ourselves more through setting the boundaries in more realistic places (read my book Raising a Happier Mother, £13.99, Amazon for more on this), we will find our shoulders dropping and our hearts more present. Our kids will never be perfect, and neither will we. We can only do our best, we can only do good enough.

If you liked this then check out Anna's other great, and insightful articles. Themost recent on mum rage will make you feel seen, and the 5 most common grandparenting fails will make you realise it's not just you. Plus her heartaching piece on regretting motherhood shares five brilliant ways to respond to that feeling.

Anna Mathur MBACP Accred
Mother, Pyschotherapist and author

Anna Mathur is a mum of three, psychotherapist and bestselling author. She's passionate about taking therapy out of the therapy room and sharing her own personal and professional experiences to support mums through motherhood. Psychoeducation is a big passion of Anna’s as she believes that knowing yourself and understanding your thoughts and feelings is a huge part of enabling change.