5 Ways to Excel at Parenting When You’re Discouraged

Sometimes life knocks you down, but you still have kids to care for. Here are five ways you can bring your A game to parenting even when you feel discouraged.

Cheryl Butler
6-minute read
Episode #535

Parenting when everything is going right with the world can leave you feeling unstoppable. Don't you just love those moments in time when your child is thriving at school and sports, on top of homework, putting away his clean laundry, funding his own weekend fun by working a great part-time job, and maintaining solid friendships? He even manages to tell you he loves you—just because! Sure, those are the things parenting dreams are made of. But there are also plenty of times when life comes at you hard—your kid is flunking two classes, breaks a leg during practice, couldn't care less about homework (or any kind of work), and has punks for friends. Not to mention, you have your own struggles—a difficult boss, a furnace on the fritz, bills to pay, and can’t remember the last time you did anything for yourself.

But when life knocks us down, we still have kids to care for. The show must go on! Here are five ways you can bring your A game to parenting even when you feel the most discouraged.

1. Don’t compare yourself to others

One of my tendencies when I’m struggling with any difficult situation in my life is to immediately look around at my friends, co-workers, family members and, yes, even social media platforms (hello, Facebook!) and compare my own messy life with how everyone else seems to be doing.

Here's one example that always comes to mind. Three of my children were diagnosed with significant speech and developmental delays when they were around 2-3 years old. After weeks of intense testing and evaluations, we had to come to grips with this very unsettling news and gear up for a few years of very involved therapy interventions to help get them back on track.

Before I was emotionally ready myself to dive in and learn all that I needed to both advocate for and support my young kids, I ventured into the very murky waters of comparison. I began noticing the behaviors and language habits of nearly every child we encountered, even strangers in the grocery store. At the time, I couldn’t help myself because I was desperately looking for patterns my speech delayed kids had in common with their normally developing peers.

In Psychology Today’s article, 3 Reasons to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others, Dr. Deborah Carr discusses the allure of comparison. It's basically a means to find out how we, ourselves, are doing. “While comparisons can be informative," she said, "they’re almost always discouraging, because someone’s always going to end up on the bottom.”

Dr. Carr goes on to discuss a better approach to comparison.  Rather than trying to figure out how we compare to others, we should instead compare our present selves to where we were in the past. This is known as temporal comparison.

Don’t waste your time comparing your family’s life to another’s. Instead, use your time and energy to take stock of your unique circumstances and plan how you’ll move forward.

In my case, with three developmentally delayed children, I had to remember that their diagnosis was just the starting point for getting the proper services to help them overcome the delay or progress to the fullest of their ability. Once I had that mindset, my focus was on every single thing they individually achieved, which helped me stay positive on the days I was struggling.

See also: 8 Ways to Create a Fulfilling Life With Your Special Needs Child

When you’re faced with a discouraging setback, don’t waste your time comparing your family’s life to another’s. Instead, use your time and energy to take stock of your unique circumstances and plan how you’ll move forward to improve the situation.

2. Engage in positive self-talk

As parents, we know that life is full of surprises. As the mom of eight kids, I’ve experienced hundreds of unexpected moments, both good and bad. Last year, I learned my daughter and her husband were expecting their first child. That surprise left me on cloud nine right up until the day my grandson was born this past December. Recently, my youngest daughter broke her leg during softball practice. That same evening our dishwasher bit the dust and I got a gooey case of pink eye ... just two days before we had to travel to my son’s college graduation. Talk about great timing!

When something goes bad in my family’s life, I’m never alone. I have my trusty, constant companion to thank for that—my inner voice. When I got the call from my daughter’s coach that she was headed to the emergency room after the softball injury, my inner voice arrived on the scene just seconds after I hung up the phone. “Well isn’t this just great? Here I am with a raging case of pink eye. My poor baby is in agony and being rushed to the hospital, and I can barely see to drive!”

When that little voice in our minds starts cranking out damaging and negative commentary, that only adds fuel to the fire of despair.

Much of our thinking is so automatic and happens so rapidly that we barely notice it before we move on to the next thought. And when that little voice in our minds starts cranking out damaging and negative commentary, that only adds fuel to the fire of despair.

My QDT colleague, Stever Robbins, Get-It-Done Guy addressed this topic in a fantastic episode, How to Psych Yourself Up with Good Self-Talk. Here we learn how to turn negative self-talk around to an inspired positive self-talk instead.

The next time you find yourself bombarded by harmful barbs from your inner voice, take some pointers from Stever. Turn the adverse self-talk into the positive. “She’s going to be fine, and her leg will heal quickly because she’s young and healthy.” Stever also explained that it’s better to talk to yourself in the second or third person when you want to regulate your emotions. “Cheryl, you’ve had pink eye many times before and you know it will clear up within 24 hours of taking the prescribed eye drops.”

3. Create a mind map

A fun and effective tool I learned in a creative writing class years back is to create a mind map. This exercise works extremely well when you’re down in the dumps about a challenge facing your family, or when you’re feeling blah about life in general.

List the goal you would like to achieve in the center of a large piece of blank paper. Next surround the goal with as many ideas and plans of action that you can think of that will help you attain it. It’s called a map because you can draw arrows, pictures, and anything else that comes to mind to help point you in the right direction, just like a roadmap.

This is a cathartic exercise for handling a low, discouraging mood because once you have a plan of action you can begin working toward a positive outcome. Taking action is a great way to break out of a rut.

My daughters did this recently to find a solution for not having to share a bedroom any longer. I let them have at it while I watched from a distance. After a couple of hours—some of it in heated discussion!—they figured out a way to turn a portion of our underused, formal dining room into a study/hang out space for one of them so they would each have privacy to get homework done and spend time with friends.

4. Stay away from emotional drains

There’s a well-known expression: Misery loves company. But if you’re going through a tough time, stay clear of the Eeyores of life and instead try and surround yourself with people who are joyful, appreciative, and can add something positive to your present situation rather than wallow with you.

Gratitude is a wonderful deterrent to discouragement.

One of my favorite games to play with my kids is one I learned from the novel Pollyanna. It's a game that Pollyanna learned from her father—the Glad Game. When Pollyanna starts to feel low, she thinks of things to be happy about and thankful for. Gratitude is a wonderful deterrent to discouragement. The Glad Game can be as simple as naming things like ice cold milk and a piece of chocolate cake or coming home to your puppy, who is wagging his tail off when he sees you. Or it can be more personal, like thanking someone for always taking the time to drive your kids home from baseball practice because your work schedule conflicts. Focusing on what’s good in your life, and appreciating your blessings, can offer you an immediate lift when you’re down.

5. Find something to look forward to

Sometimes, when you’re faced with a difficult stretch, it helps to find something uplifting that you and your family can look forward to. Today’s families keep an overwhelming pace between school, work, and family commitments. Grab your calendar and plan a night out with the kids for pizza and a movie or a daytrip to the city to explore and see some new sights.

Talking about doing something fun is nice, but when you actually schedule it, chances are you’ll make sure it happens. And the anticipation is definitely a big part of the excitement, not to mention a great prescription to help combat life’s disappointments.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.