top of page
  • Lori K Walters

Parents of teens: Stop telling yourself "I should know how to do this."

The back of a woman sitting on a log looking out at the ocean

You had plans about how you were going to parent. Damn good plans.

And then one day, it’s your kid who’s getting in fights, shutting you out of their lives, struggling with ADHD, using drugs…. You didn’t have a plan for that, did you? You were going to do all the right things to avoid that messiness.

It catches you by surprise. You land in new territory. And you’re unprepared. You fumble around trying to figure it out what to do. You look in the mirror and say, “I should know how to do this.”

Taking care of our kids is a biological imperative, a message deep in our bones, a primordial instinct to propagate our species. When the fox kit runs after a skunk or wanders too near the riverbank, the parents instinctually bring them back to safety.

And though you're not living in the forests and jungles, you are still a mammal and, as such, your systems are wired to look after your young. When danger appears, you are compelled to protect them and, when the hazard is beyond your knowledge or experience – like a teen pregnancy, an abusive girlfriend or depression – you go searching for know-how you think should have.

But you don’t.

You’ve never been in this situation before. Your mama didn’t teach you anything about these kinds of rivers. You instinctually look for prior experience or inherited knowledge about how to deal with the situation. And when you can’t find it, you chastise yourself: “I should know how”

If you’ve ever said this line to yourself, I invite you to take a moment here to tune into this voice. Can you hear it? What does it sound like?

Mimic its tone and say it out loud. Try making a face or gesture to go with it. Even record a little video of yourself saying, "You should know how to do this." Believe me, it’s enlightening.

Talking with parents of teens, here are the kinds of inner voices I hear about:

Scolding. This voice shakes a finger at you and lays out everything you’ve done wrong: “You screwed this all up. You should have prevented this. You’re incompetent. You should be handling this effectively and maturely instead of fumbling around like an idiot. What’s wrong with you? Get your shit together. You’re such a bad parent.”

Shaming. This one ensures that you feel bad about yourself. “OMG now everyone’s watching you. They’re thinking that, if you were a good parent, this wouldn’t be happening with your kid. Your family and friends see you as a failure as a parent. You don’t even deserve to be a parent. You should be ashamed of letting this happen.”

Isolating. This inner voice is certain that you’re alone and unsupported. It says, “This is your responsibility and yours alone. Don’t burden anyone else. People are already losing respect for you and backing away. You’re losing friends. No one is going to support you. To be a good parent, you have to figure this out on your own.”

Pitying. “Oh, poor little, helpless you. You can’t even take care of your own kids. You’ll have to let others do it for you. Everyone else can figure parenting out but you’re just not up to the task. You’re so foolish and feeble.”

What’s happening for you as you read this?

Is your heart sinking or puffing up in self-defense?

Are your shoulders caving, your spine tingling or your pulse racing?

Does your stomach feel watery or taut?

We ALL have some unkind inner voices.  And it's our job as ever-developing adults to listen to them so we can understand what they’re really trying to tell us.

When you hear the voice, “I should know,” how might she be trying to protect your safety, dignity, belonging, autonomy, self-worth, emotional safety, etc.?  

I know it can be hard to consider any benefits of that hurtful voice. Take a breath or two here and ask that part of yourself, what's your true motivation here? What feels like it’s at risk when you don’t know how to deal with your kid’s problem? 

Name it as best you can.

Now consider, Is this really at risk?

  • Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s an assumption or something your imagination has created (we all do this at times). If a younger version of you has created a scenario that’s not quite true, you can thank her for trying to protect you and let her know that grown-up you can take it from here.


  • Or maybe there really is a risk. If so, name it and then think about other ways this risk might be mitigated when you're in new unknown territory lacking knowledge and experience. For example, if you risk losing your mother-in-law’s respect, brainstorm about how else you can maintain this relationship in the midst of your kid’s current challenges. What else is possible?


As Margaret Atwood wrote, “shoulds” are futile. They get us nowhere. Either you know how to be a parent of a kid with a criminal record/ mental illness/ no friends/ etc. or you will learn.

You will learn because you take your role as a parent seriously.

You will learn because you are on this journey with them.

You will learn because you are Love.

Subscribe to my Sunday Letter to Parents



bottom of page