The minute you become a parent, the pressure is on to do everything right. Everywhere you turn there is advice from friends, family and the media telling you what to do to be a perfect parent. That leads many parents to question themselves. Are they making all of the right choices about their children? Logically, most parents know there is no way to follow every recommendation and you would never expect other parents to be perfect. Yet, the pressure is there and it is that pressure that causes parents to fall into parent traps.

Would you answer true or false to the following statement? 

It is a tough world out there and I need to give my children every advantage to be competitive in the college and job market.

That is the essence of a parent trap. Parents want the best for their kids and they want to do everything they can to ensure their children have every opportunity for “success.” However, the trap is when parents “give” their children advantages. When it is the parents who always schedule, decide and provide advantages, it takes away the chance for their kids to learn the skills that will truly put them at an advantage. 

A parent trap is a situation in which parents are drawn to solve problems, make decisions or rescue children in a way that ultimately stifles growth opportunities.

With the pressures of raising children in this generation, parents often feel they need to “give” their children advantages. There are more opportunities for children’s extracurricular and enrichment programs than ever before and parents have access to an abundance of information. Parents of this generation of kids are inundated with the latest recommendations for child rearing. Before the Internet, information was shared via word-of-mouth. Now, there are emails, school fliers and pop-up ads for every organization they may have had any contact with, not to mention the social media posts from all of their friends, family and acquaintances. Ultimately, it feels like everyone else is doing it all and parents don’t want their kids to miss out. This leads to overscheduled kids and no opportunity for them to figure things out on their own.

There are five common traps that parents unwittingly fall into. 

1. The Rescue Trap: This is probably the most common trap we see parents fall into. Parents hate to see their children struggle. As a result, they often feel compelled to “save” their kids from the frustrated, hurt or angry feelings that occur when a problem arises. Many times, parents have the ability to fix the problem, and often, they can fix it quickly. It is very tempting to make it easier for everyone and jump in with the solution.

As psychologists we see two consequences to the Rescue Trap. First, children come to expect others to solve their problems for them. Second, they are denied opportunities to practice very important skills that will be required throughout life. Problem-solving takes a lot of practice. Each time children are rescued they miss that essential practice and they come to rely even more on others to solve their problems. 

2. The Hurried Trap: This generation of kids has grown accustomed to instant gratification and they live in a culture that encourages it. We live in a fast-paced society with advanced technology that provides instant access to information, entertainment and communication. In addition, parents have also become accustomed to this pace, which very often translates into responding to their children’s requests and desires quickly. In turn, the simple act of waiting can cause anxiety and uncertainty in children. That unease is difficult for parents to watch and they are drawn to respond to their kids right away. It is so ingrained in our society that most of us don’t even recognize we are doing it.

This generation of kids is growing up in a world where things are going to get easier and faster. Therefore, it is even more important for parents to avoid the Hurried Trap. When the kids always come first and their needs are met quickly, the need for instant gratification is enhanced. They develop a low frustration tolerance with waiting, are more impulsive in their decision making and become agitated when things don’t go their way. 

3. The Pressure Trap: In today’s culture of raising children, there is a lot of pressure to provide them with every advantage to get ahead. Parents are concerned that if they don’t their kids will be left behind academically, athletically or socially. This is such an alluring trap because it feels like “everyone else” is doing all of these things. When parents hear about the competitive sports team Johnny is on, the music class Jo is taking or the academic enrichment course Sue just signed up for, they question whether their own kids are doing enough.

We interact with children and teens every week who talk to us about the pressure they feel to do more, yet they are exhausted because their schedules are too full, leaving no free time. It is important not to underestimate the value of unstructured free time. When adults structure their schedule, children don’t even think about how to plan their day, solve a problem, manage their time and prioritize activities. When children have to figure out what to do with unstructured time, they also learn to tolerate unexpected changes in their plans. When given the opportunity to participate in their schedule, they learn flexibility, problem-solving and tolerance. 

4. The Giving Trap: If you find that you can’t think of a gift for your child when it is a birthday or holiday, you may be falling into the Giving Trap. Part of the pressure to keep up includes the material items parents give their kids. Whether it is a cell phone or a pack of gum at the grocery store, parents don’t realize how much they give their kids without them working for it. The item doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, the regular low-cost items can leave the biggest impact. Think about how easy it is to say “yes” to the 99 cent app your child asks to download or the hot wheel car they see at every cashier at the market. You think it is low cost, so why not? However, it reinforces the notion of instant gratification and getting things without work.

Even young children can learn they need to help with tasks to earn things they want. It is sometimes helpful to think of these “things” as goals. Children can learn to develop plans to meet those goals. One of the best gifts parents can give their children is the confidence they can develop a plan and earn what they want all by themselves. 

5. The Guilt Trap: This is a trap that most parents fall into at some point. Parents are regularly challenged by circumstances that include making a decision that angers or frustrates their child. Whether it is saying “no” to a request, setting a limit, or enforcing a consequence, when a child responds negatively, parents often question whether they did the right thing. They feel guilty and take on the responsibility of causing the child’s unhappy feelings. This makes it very tempting to give in.

Typically, when a child’s reaction makes parents feel guilty, it is because a situation did not go as the child wanted. The child is not considering the reason for the decision or being thoughtful of how others are impacted by it. It is developmentally typical for kids to respond in this way. However, when parents give in to the Guilt Trap and change their decision, their children remain self-focused and learn that complaining works. If complaining gets them what they want, why not keep it up?

We call these parent traps because they are so alluring. In each trap, the intention is to help children feel better or to support them in meeting their goals. In fact, in the short-term, they do feel better and a difficult situation may be avoided. However, in the long-term, chances to practice essential life skills are missed.

We interviewed parents and asked them what they wanted most for their kids. In addition to “happy” and “healthy,” they said they wanted them to be confident, considerate, kind, independent, capable and successful. Think about what it takes to be those things. It takes patience, good judgment, planning, organization, empathy and social awareness. It requires a lot of practice to develop those qualities and that practice is lost when parents fall into the parent traps.

As psychologists, we have never worked with a young adult who struggled because he or she didn’t play enough sports, take enough AP classes, have the new smart phone or wear the trendiest clothes. However, we have worked with many who never learned how to tolerate unexpected challenges, develop the confidence to solve problems on their own or communicate with people they disagree with.

Remember that the goal isn’t to be a perfect parent, because there isn’t one. Being aware of and avoiding the common traps allows us to find many opportunities to teach children to be confident and thoughtful. We encourage parents to rethink the way they view their children’s trials and tribulations. We want parents to celebrate them as an opportunity for their kids to practice using the skills that will be essential throughout their lives. 

Tips to Avoid the Traps 

A mom says to herself, “I can’t believe I took his phone away for a month! That is too long. If I give in now, it will look like he is getting his way.”

1. Be kind to yourself. Parents make mistakes too. When it happens use it as an opportunity to model for your kids how to resolve a mistake. Children really benefit from observing how you deal with the frustration and then how you pull it together to solve problems. With the example above the parent can say, “I was really angry when you did that. I gave the consequence before thinking about it. I think two weeks is more reasonable and you can leave it downstairs in the kitchen. If you need to check texts you can do it there.” 

It is 8 pm and a middle school child says, “I have a project due tomorrow I forgot about. We need to go to the craft store right now to get the supplies.”

2. Celebrate mistakes. Resist the temptation to jump in and fix your children’s problems. Allowing them to fix their own mistakes builds confidence. It is essential for children to learn how to remedy unexpected outcomes or mistakes and the only way to do that is practice. Children often need help figuring it out and asking for help is a great problem-solving strategy. But don’t give them the solution. Instead, make your automatic response, “What are some things you thought of so far?”

“Mom, I am hungry.” Mom responds, “What can I get for you?”

Child reaches expectantly for parent’s phone to play with anytime waiting is required.

Text sent at 3:05: Dad, where r u? It is after 3!

3. Integrate waiting at every age. Teaching resilience and frustration tolerance is extremely important and that comes with being able to sit with a problem, even when there is no immediate solution. Children with low frustration tolerance tend to be impulsive problem-solvers. This generation of children is not required to wait for much. Therefore, you need to make the effort to integrate it into their daily lives. This can be done by teaching kids to wait and can be started from a very young age. If your children ask you to do something for them, share what you are doing and then let them know the amount of time they need to wait. Begin this pattern when children are toddlers with turn-taking games. The time required to wait advances with each age. For example, “I am putting these clothes in the bedroom, I can help you in two minutes” or “I am putting dinner together. I can help you with that in 15 minutes.” For teens, it can include, “I am at lunch with a friend. I will take you there when I get back in about two hours.” 

“Mom, you need to wash my gym clothes for tomorrow.”

4. See children as part of the family unit. Teach children to be thoughtful by supporting their role as part of the family unit. Not only is it important that they help with chores, but when parents need their assistance as well. For example, “I have to write a report tonight. Can you please empty the dishwasher?” Alternately, when they are busy, don’t just let them slack off on chores. Instead, encourage the same thoughtfulness. For example, “Dad, I have late practice and a paper due tomorrow. Can you please throw in a load of laundry for me?” 

“Dad, can I get the candy drop app? It is only 99 cents.”

5. Make them work for it. One of the best gifts you can give your children is the confidence that they can make a plan to get the special things they want all by themselves. It teaches them they can set goals and find ways to obtain them. Young kids can help Mom or Dad with a chore and earn something small and older kids can learn to build up a savings. When a child asks for something that costs money, it is great to be supportive. That does not mean buying the item for the child; it is simply sharing interest in something new. Then help them think of ways of paying for it. For example, you can say, “That game looks interesting. Let’s talk about things you can do this weekend to earn the money for it” or “Yeah. I love that style of jeans. I can give you the money I would normally pay for jeans and we can talk about how you can earn the rest.” For expensive items you can say, “You want your own car when you are sixteen? Let’s determine the cost of different types of cars and you can decide how much you need to work to earn the money to buy the one you want.” This way, you can always support their goals without giving the solution. 

Darlene Sweetland and Ron Stolberg are married clinical psychologists who have taken the knowledge gained from their practices and parenting their own children to create a parenting book for the modern age, Teaching Kids to Think (Sourcebooks, March 2015).