Why We Get So Upset When Our Kids Screw Up

Melissa just checked her son’s grades, and they’re pretty bad.  He has one B and the rest are Cs and Ds.   Daniel is in 8th grade, and he’s really smart, so Melissa doesn’t understand how he could be doing so poorly.  She thinks to herself, “He needs to bring those grades up.  He’s really smart.  There’s no reason he shouldn’t be getting all A’s and B’s.”

Melissa is angry.  She doesn’t understand why Daniel doesn’t try harder, why he doesn’t seem to care.  It just doesn’t make sense and it’s infuriating. 

And just beneath that anger is fear.  What if he keeps getting bad grades through high school and can’t get into college.  And, deeper than that, is another fear, one that makes her chest feel tight and causes panicked thoughts to run rampant in her mind.  She’s afraid Daniel will end up feeling like a failure as a person, that he’ll end up working a dead-end job that makes him miserable.  And she’s afraid she’ll be constantly reminded that she failed him as a parent, that maybe there was something she could have done to help him. 

And so when she thinks, “He needs to bring those grades up,” what she’s really thinking is, I need him to be successful and happy, so that I am not a failure.

If you find yourself needing your kid to change in some way, it’s likely that their behavior triggers a deep fear...


This fear; that we might somehow fail our children, that they will somehow end up as addicts or assholes—or that they’ll be depressed or unemployed or even dead; this fear lingers below the surface for all of us with this overwhelming job of raising children. 

And the way this fear bubbles up in our lives is by making us feel like we need our kids to succeed, to be happy, to have friends, etc.  Because if they don’t, what would that say about us as their parents?

If you find yourself needing your kid to change in some way, it’s likely that their behavior triggers a deep fear that something terrible will happen to your child. 

A parent who needs their son to be involved in lots of activities might be deeply afraid he will end up a lazy person, living at home and playing video games until he’s thirty. 

A parent who needs their daughter to stop dating that boy might have a deep fear of her being emotionally abused, or ending up serial-dating jerks because she has a low opinion of herself. 


Now, you might ask, “What’s the problem with me needing my kid to stay out of trouble?  I’m just doing my job as a parent.” 

To answer that, we'll talk about the difference between needs and preferences

When you need your kid to do something, and they don’t do it, you become angry or anxious or depressed.  And then when you talk with your kid about it, your emotions take over and sabotage the conversation.  Your kid gets defensive, which triggers your emotions more, and the whole thing escalates until someone says something hurtful or storms out of the room. 

When you prefer your kid to do something, and they don’t, then you might be irritated or bummed out, but you won’t have the strong emotional reaction you would have if you needed them to do it.  You will be able to approach in a more calm, detached way. 

The vibe your kid gets from you will be, “I wish you would have turned in your homework, but I’m okay either way.”  And that vibe is very calming for a child or adolescent.   So now both of you are calm, you will be able to talk about the problem in a way that feels like you’re on the same team, working together, instead of feeling like it’s you versus your kid. 

So, ask yourself: Do you need your child to:

  • Do what they’re told?
  • Get better grades?
  • Eat their vegetables?
  • Be nicer?
  • Hang out with a different crowd?

If you find yourself answering yes (I know I certainly do), it might be helpful to take a look at the fears underneath that need.  Be honest with yourself.  We as parents all have these fears.  The fears are there to protect you and may just need you to listen to them.  Once you do, they will calm down. 

All characters are fictional.  Their experiences are common among real people, but they are not based on any real people.  Any resemblances to real people are coincidental. 


If you like this, check out The Teen Mind, my podcast about understanding stress and anxiety and how it affects our teens.  

- Corey