A clinical psychologist and mom of two shares what you need (and what you don't) to challenge self-doubt and boost your confidence in parenting.
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An illustration of a woman looking at herself in the mirror.
Credit: Yeji Kim.

Whether you're a first time parent, or a seasoned one with multiple kids, finding your confidence in parenthood can feel elusive at times. That's probably because it's a bit of a moving target. Once you get the hang of one aspect of parenting, your child evolves (or you do) and now you have to find your bearings all over again.

Perceived pressures from well-meaning in-laws, the mom at the playground who makes it look all too easy, and curated images on social media often add to our sense of self-consciousness, self-doubt, and sometimes even self-blame when parenting feels like a struggle.

And despite the images we frequently encounter of the calm, cool, collected, confident parent, it is really important that we start to normalize that confidence (the real, authentic confidence that helps us to be flexible and nimble in the face of parenting challenges) is a fluid and ever evolving state of mind. We have it sometimes, but not all the time, and that is OK.

I am a clinical psychologist who has spent more than a decade studying child development, how attachment drives motivate children's behavior and relationships, and have worked with countless families, and I still have plenty of moments where my confidence as a parent feels shaken. I have two small kids, and it really wasn't until my second was born that I really discovered the real secret to tapping into my own confidence as a parent—something I call the "Confidence Recipe." So, let's break down this recipe into two parts: What you need and and what you need to let go of.

What You Need: A Foundational Framework

The real key to feeling confident as a parent—the kind of confidence that allows to us to be flexible, spontaneous, and calm and consistent in how we respond to those unexpected parenting moments that pull the rug out from under us—is first having a foundational framework of some key elements of child development.

Understanding what motivates their behavior

A child's attachment drives lead them to seek out physical and emotional proximity to their primary caregivers. This is biologically hardwired and evolutionarily based, which means it is highly motivating and very difficult for a child to ignore. These drives motivate a significant amount of their behavior—even the behavior that we might find to be very challenging (like freaking out when we want to go to the bathroom, or even testing limits to see if we will remain close to them even when they're at their worst).

Understanding how their brains work

A child's brain and body are tuned into the signals coming from our brain and body. They are consciously and unconsciously scanning our facial cues, our body language, our tone of voice, and even more subtle communications to assess the safety of their environment. Our physiological calm helps their brains and bodies to maintain a state of calm. Conversely, our agitation, panic, frustration, or hesitancy also get transmitted to their brains and bodies, and can lead to dysregulated behaviors (think tantrums, avoidance, resistance).

If you know these things, you are more able to work with your child's brains, bodies, and biological hardwiring rather than against them. When you have this foundational framework, you can apply it to any situation parenting throws at you and you'll be able to feel more confident in your ability to respond with consistency, calmness, and flexibility.

What You Need to Let Go Of: Believing the Goal is Perfection

A major myth when it comes to finding our confidence as parents is that perfection is the goal. So many parents I speak with feel so much pressure to meet all the needs, and simultaneously be the perfect teacher and disciplinarian. Not only are these perfectionistic ideals impossible to attain, these roles can frequently be at odds with each other, which can make for some head spinning helplessness.

Imagine, for example, a situation in which your child is tantruming over a limit you just set. How can you simultaneously meet your child's needs perfectly while also being the perfect teacher and disciplinarian here? When our various goals of perfection feel mutually exclusive in the moment, we find ourselves in a pickle and that can shake our confidence.

The antidote? Recognizing that the goal is in fact to be good enough (not perfect), and to know what our actual job is as parents (and what it is not).

Replace perfect with good enough

The concept of the good enough parent comes from the famous pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, and basically states that it is our inevitable early misattunement with our child that helps them to first begin to understand that we are two separate beings. This awareness becomes the foundation of their sense of self. This is a critical part of development, and is facilitated by our not being perfect.

Stop doing the wrong job

It is not our job to make our children happy. Wait, what? Hear me out. Do we want our children to be happy? Of course we do. Is it our job to support them in finding ways to experience authentic happiness, yes! But is it our job to make them happy? No. It is our job to keep them safe, to keep them healthy, to keep them clean, to move them through the schedule of the day, to make difficult decisions, to love them.

There are a few problematic things that can emerge if we mistakenly think our job is to make our kids happy. First, we are communicating to our child that happiness is the goal, when in fact we know that mental health is actually measured not by how happy we are but by how well we can tolerate feeling the entire range of human emotions—the good, the bad, the ugly. We want to help our children learn that all of their feelings are safe, and we can tolerate and sit beside them throughout any feeling they have.

Second, we are setting ourselves up for failure, because we are trying to control something we actually have no control over. Trying to achieve an impossible task will ultimately lead to a sense of failure, learned helplessness, and lots of guilt and shame (recipe for confidence? No!).

What do we do instead? We validate their experience, we help them to regroup through coregulation, and we tolerate their discomfort. When we focus our energy on the things we can control, we have a lot more agency and can feel much more grounded and confident—even in really hot and messy moments.

The Bottom Line

The key things you need to know and the key things you need to let go of will help you find your confidence in parenthood. And remember, confidence is a practice, it is not the end goal. It is something we move in and out of all the time, and we can use mindfulness and self-compassion to notice when we are moving out of it, so that we can gently guide ourselves back toward it. You've definitely got this!

Sarah Bren, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and mom of two, whose passion is helping parents find their inner confidence and raise healthy, resilient kids. Dr. Sarah is the host of the podcast Securely Attached, and the creator of the digital course The Authentic Parent: Finding Your Confidence in Parenthood. You can connect with her at drsarahbren.com and on Instagram.