How to Forgive Myself When I Make Mistakes as a Parent

Mistakes are the spice of life. No, wait…that’s variety. Regardless, it’s incredibly probable that a variety of mistakes will pepper your life as a parent. You know that manual that comes with being a mom or dad? The one that assures you will do everything perfectly? Yeah…me neither. While parental instincts and good advice can be incredibly helpful, there is no teacher quite like experience. Even with the best of intentions, we all make mistakes. Some are minor. Others keep us up at night wondering how we could have been so wrong. How do you handle your missteps as a parent? Do you shrug it off or do you wallow in your guilt? Perhaps psychologist Joyce Brothers said it best, “You need to give yourself permission to be human.” It doesn’t matter whether you are a biological, adoptive, or foster family. There is no such thing as a perfect parent (or a perfect person). When you get that nagging feeling that you have failed your child in some way, take these points into consideration.

Assess the Situation

As parents, we have a way of thinking things are worse than they actually are. Chances are, your perception of your parenting mistake may be bigger than the mistake itself. It can help to take an objective look at what went wrong and how it has affected your child.

Is this a minor mistake? Did you feed your child cookies for breakfast or send them to school wearing a stained shirt? Did you forget to send in the fundraiser packet or give them a terrible haircut? Did you let your child stare at their tablet all day just so you could get things done around the house? Maybe the tooth fairy forgot to check under the pillow. These types of mistakes are incredibly common and totally forgivable. Even though you may not feel like the parent of the year, the recovery time for these mistakes is minimal. Let it go and know that tomorrow is another day.

Is this a slightly bigger mistake? Did you lose your temper and raise your voice in frustration? Did your child overhear you using language that would make a sailor blush? Are you being inconsistent with discipline or giving into your child’s every whim? Are you struggling to give your child the time and attention they need? Whether you’ve dropped the ball on helping with their school project or felt the eyes of judgment burning through you during your child’s meltdown in the middle of the grocery store, know that these moments are normal as well. It may take a moment to recover your poise, but these issues are very manageable and don’t typically cause lasting damage.

Is this a really big mistake? Some mistakes are serious. If you have harmed your child physically or done severe damage to their emotional state, the situation calls for more than an apology. If your child has been removed from your home due to abuse, neglect, or substance abuse issues, it can be very easy to feel overcome by guilt. These situations often require help from professionals. While we can’t change the past, we can strive to be better in the future. Do not be afraid to ask for help and do not let your guilt catapult you into making further mistakes.

Allow Yourself to Feel Guilty, But Don’t Get Stuck There

When we mess up, it’s natural to feel some guilt. It’s a terrible feeling, but did you know that guilt serves a purpose? When we feel remorse for what we have done, it means that we have the opportunity to improve. Use the negative feeling to create positive results. You don’t like feeling like this, so do your best to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

Be careful, though, that your guilt isn’t turning into shame. When we feel shame, it can be hard to rise above it. We get the feeling that we are bad parents and that no matter how hard we try, we will never be able to improve. Remember that everyone makes mistakes. Regardless of your past, your family, your state of mind—there is always a chance to improve and start fresh.

It can also help to remember that some things are beyond your control. We have dominion over our own actions, but the actions of others and some life circumstances are outside our circle of control. Still, we sometimes feel guilty when we can’t change difficult situations. When our children deal with medical issues, the inconsiderate words/actions of others, or trauma from the past—we want so badly to fix it. It’s tough when situations are beyond our control. Remember that it’s not your fault. While you can’t always take away the pain or change the situation at hand, you can provide the love, assistance, and care needed to make life a bit easier.

Admit Your Faults and Own Your Mistakes

Even when we know we have made a mistake, there are times we would like to dismiss it like it didn’t happen. If we ignore it, it will go away. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. As much as we would like to forget what has happened, we need to address it.

First, admit your wrongdoing to yourself. Consider what it is that you have done. Think about the consequences of your actions. Ask yourself why you have made this mistake and how you can prevent making the same mistakes in the future. We sometimes have a tendency to try and justify our actions to ourselves and others. “I only did this because ___,” or “If you wouldn’t have done ___, then I wouldn’t have had to act that way,” or “It’s not my fault, it’s the way I was raised.” The truth is, we are the only ones in control of our words and our actions. We can’t lay the blame where it doesn’t belong. If you mess up, ‘fess up. Holding yourself accountable is an important step in building your character.

Secondly, admit your mistakes to others. This may mean speaking honestly with your spouse, your therapist, or your child about the situation. It’s important that children see adults taking responsibility for their actions. By speaking to them honestly and in a way they can understand, we can explain that everyone makes mistakes and that it’s important to admit when we are wrong. Use this as an opportunity to teach a valuable life lesson about honesty, respecting the feelings of others, and striving to do better next time.

Sincere Apologies 

Apologizing is hard. It means we have to admit our faults and come face to face with the person we have hurt. As difficult as it may be to muster up the courage, once you have made amends, a weight will be lifted from your shoulders.

Sincere apologies require more than just a quick, “I’m sorry.” They often require you to admit that you have made a mistake, acknowledge how it has affected others, and express your commitment to not make those same mistakes again. It may require asking what you can do to help fix the situation.

Whether or not a person accepts your apology is another story. Some people still hold resentment even after an apology, and there isn’t much you can do. If you have done your best to make amends, and if you have been genuine with your words, most people will appreciate your effort. By apologizing, you are also setting an excellent example for your children to follow.

Resist the urge to apologize profusely—bringing up the same mistake over and over again. Don’t let guilt cause you to relive the same problems over and over again. One really good apology is usually plenty.

Forgive Yourself

If you have done everything in your power to make things right, forgive yourself and let it go. Remember that what’s done is done. There is nothing you can do to change the past, but you can learn from it. Focus on the present and how it can lead to a better future.

Let Experience Teach You 

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could learn everything by reading a book or by watching the mistakes of others? While these can be great teachers, we often learn life’s most important lessons the hard way. It’s not always easy, but it can certainly be memorable. We live and we learn—it’s the human experience.

Parenting isn’t a perfectly planned script. It’s an improvisation. We make it up as we go along and hope that everything works out in the best interests of ourselves and our children. Strive to be the best provider and the best parent that you can, but realize that life happens.

Some days everything will fall into place. Your kids will eat healthy foods, they will ace that math test, and they will go to bed on time. Other days, you’ll sleep through your alarm, forget to put the clothes in the dryer, and wish you could have wine for breakfast. Breathe deeply and allow yourself to learn as you go. When you make mistakes, learn from them and address what you can do to keep from making them again.

If you struggle to get motivated or if you continue to forget what you were supposed to be doing, consider making a to-do list. Hang it on the fridge and mark items off as you finish them. Not only will this help you to get things done, but you will also feel a sense of accomplishment when you see all that you have achieved. Mark appointments and important dates on your calendar and set reminders on your phone to ensure you don’t forget what’s coming up.

If you find that you are struggling with patience or your temper, research ways to deal with your frustration. Deep breathing exercises, grounding techniques, and mindful meditation may sound silly at first, but they can be incredibly helpful. Parenting comes with its fair share of anxiety and even moments that make you question your sanity, but if it becomes overwhelming, remember that there is absolutely nothing wrong with talking to a therapist or other professional.

If you are dealing with deeper issues like substance abuse, the inability to provide basic needs for your children, or severe mental health issues—do not hesitate to seek help. There are many resources available to you. Anyone can make a change for the better. What’s important is that you are striving to live your best life for yourself and for your children. Don’t give up. YOU CAN DO THIS.

Make Time for Yourself 

You can’t pour from an empty cup. Sometimes our struggles with parenting come from burn out. If you feel like you are at your wits’ end and it’s affecting your parenting style, consider taking a time out. Get a babysitter. Have a date night. Buy the fancy coffee. Roll down your windows, crank up your music, and drive. Self-care is vital. As much as your kids matter, remember that you are important as well. You will be a much more effective parent when you are taking care of yourself, too.

While it can seem nearly impossible to find time for yourself, let alone scheduling a time to see friends—make sure that you have a good support system. Surround yourself with people who inspire and motivate you. It is helpful to have other parents in your life who you can speak openly with. You may be surprised to find that they are dealing with similar experiences. Bounce ideas off of each other and listen with an open mind. Sometimes it just helps to know that you aren’t alone.

Consider What’s Important 

Not every mistake is a travesty. What’s most important is knowing that you are doing your best. Think back on your own childhood. While you likely remember some of the parenting mistakes your mom or dad made, it’s almost certain that you don’t remember them all. Neither will your kids. Mistakes help us to learn and grow. Not only are they inevitable, but they can also be beneficial to our development.

Adoptive and foster parents may feel that they hold themselves to an impossible standard. They may feel that they have a need to be perfect or have the perception that others expect perfection from them because they “signed up for this.” Remember that nobody is perfect, and if they were, it would be incredibly annoying.

Focus less on your shortcomings and more on your assets. What makes you a great parent? Are you teaching your child how to be creative? Do you play ball with them in the backyard? Are you helping them to read and to use their manners? Do you spend a lot of time laughing together? Think about what you are good at and focus on that. Your kids are going to look back fondly on the many happy memories they have made with you. What you do right far outweighs what you do wrong. Your kids don’t expect perfection. They just want you to love them unconditionally and take an active role in their lives. When you make a mistake, admit it, apologize, learn from it, and focus on the positive. Pat yourself on the back and know that you get up every day and give it your best shot. That, in itself, is a big accomplishment.

Laughter Really Is the Best Medicine 

Don’t forget to laugh at yourself. Some days, nothing will go as planned. All you can do is have a good chuckle and remember that life happens. No matter how diligent you are in setting a good example for your kids, sometimes you will slip up. Sometimes they will, too.

When my son was about 3 years old, we went shopping at a thrift store. Even though I was doing my best to supervise him, the unthinkable happened. By the time I turned around, he was licking the mirror—IN THE SALVATION ARMY BATHROOM. I could have panicked—thinking about every form of bacteria that was coursing through his little system as I tried desperately to rinse his mouth. Instead, I just laugh about it to this day. It’s a fun story to tell friends, and hey, it probably built his immunity.

There’s also the time my daughter was crawling around on a friend’s floor and thought she saw a piece of chocolate. Only, it wasn’t chocolate. It was rabbit poop. Yuck. That was the same day that she decided to leap from her father’s arms and face-planted right on the floor. He wasn’t expecting her to jump, and it legitimately looked like he threw her. As embarrassing as it was, she was okay, and they both learned a lesson.

If you have a habit of cursing (or listening to music or movies containing curse words), you may be caught completely off-guard when you walk past the bathroom only to hear your child spouting off every foul word in existence while looking in the mirror to see how cool they must look. You may be completely floored and upset upon hearing this, or you may find it absolutely hilarious. Even if you are cracking up laughing on the inside at someone so small saying something so inappropriate, do your best to explain to them that they are much too pretty or handsome to be using such ugly words.

The little mistakes can make for great entertainment. Jot down these memories and tell your children about them when they are grown. They will likely get a good chuckle as well. As for the mistakes that are no laughing matter, let them be lessons. Motivate yourself to do better so that you can raise a successful child.

Most of all, give yourself some grace. Parenting is a journey. It’s full of ups and downs, twists and turns. Nobody gets it exactly right, but we end up doing a pretty good job. You’ve got this, mom. You’re doing great, dad. Hang in there.

If you have stories about your mistakes as a parent (or mistakes that YOUR parents made), feel free to share them in the comments below! Whether they are funny or serious, sarcastic or sincere, there are others who can surely relate.