Children’s Behaviors Can Undermine Parents’ Feelings of Competence

Parents determine their level of parenting competence by gauging how well their children have grown and developed over time. It is important that a parent feels competent with their parenting abilities throughout a child’s life because this sense of competence directly impacts the parent’s self-esteem and well-being, which indirectly influence the child. When children are unruly and unresponsive to parental discipline, parents feel that their competence is in question. During adolescence, children act more impulsively, ignore parental guidance and engage in more externalizing behaviors than during early childhood. But until recently, determining how these adolescent behaviors affect parenting competence has not been fully examined. To further explore the link between children’s behaviors and parenting competence, and the reverse influence, Meike Slagt of the Department of Developmental Psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands studied children and their parents over a 6-year period.

For the study, Slagt evaluated 551 families with children who were approximately 8 years old. The parents and children were assessed for levels of parenting discipline, competence, and child externalizing behaviors. Six years later, Slagt evaluated the families again and found that the mothers of the children with externalizing trends at age 8 felt less competent as parents 6 years later. Specifically, the mothers of these children felt like their disciplining techniques were inept and that they were unable to adequately discipline their teens. However, when Slagt examined the reverse effect, the findings were different. Slagt said, “Parents’ sense of competence did not predict children’s externalizing problems, either directly or indirectly via parenting behaviors.”

This is one of the first studies to demonstrate that parents’ competence levels are directly related to the behaviors of children during childhood and adolescence and that these behaviors can significantly deteriorate a parents’ sense of self-esteem and well-being. Slagt also noted that the study showed positive results. The parents who believed they were capable and qualified parents at the onset of the study had higher levels of effective discipline 6 years later, which directly enhanced the parents’ levels of competence. These findings clearly emphasize the importance of addressing children’s externalizing patterns as a factor for later conduct and behavior problems and the influence these factors have on parental self-perceptions.

Slagt, M., Deković, M., de Haan, A. D., van den Akker, A. L., & Prinzie, P. (2012). Longitudinal associations between mothers’ and fathers’ sense of competence and children’s externalizing problems: The mediating role of parenting. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027719

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  • Ona Bell

    Ona Bell

    March 26th, 2012 at 4:28 PM

    It is sad but I know that when I was a young mother, I absolutely derived my sense of self worth from how well my kids listened to me and how well they responded to the things that I tried to teach them. It is amazing just how quickly your children can tear down your self esteem without even trying too hard! Of course there were days when I thought I was the mother of the year and there were days when I felt like the worst mom on earth, but I know that I always gave 100% and that was what mattered the most in the end.

  • Leigh Anne

    Leigh Anne

    March 27th, 2012 at 4:09 AM

    They might try to make me feel bad, but if I know that what I am doing is the right thing as a parent, then why should it ever make me question how competent I am in that role?

  • Gage


    March 27th, 2012 at 4:37 PM

    Is it that parents true competence levels are actually affected or their feelings about their level of competence? Two very different things there. The parents may actually be perfectly ok but their kids make them feel crappy and like they can do nothing right.

  • Shannon


    March 27th, 2012 at 9:51 PM

    I remember my mom feeling depressed when my older sister was in her teens and was being her own teen-self…But the same depression didn’t come back when my other sister or I were at the same stage-probably because my older sister was the first child and this put an excessive mental strain on my mom?

  • Bea


    March 28th, 2012 at 2:47 PM

    I do not want to let my kids down, but there is a time when I know that they are going to think that I have not done my best and they are going to be disappointed. But I have to know that to be a good parent that I have to keep trying to do what I know is right for them. I don’t want to let that disappointment that they may feel keep me from trying agian though. I see a lot of parents who just kind of give up when they think that they can’t do a great job. But you are not going to be able to do a great job all of the time, but you have to at least continue to make the best effort.

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