I rarely meet a parent who denies having felt some guilt about how they’ve raised their kids. I hear things like, “I wasn’t there enough. I wasn’t affectionate enough. I said hurtful things, yelled, hit, spanked and blamed. I was a bad role model. I didn’t take the time to understand my children. I pushed too hard / didn’t push enough.”
The way I see it, a certain level of guilt is natural when our hearts are so fully engaged and we’re committed to doing our best in a job we’ve never done before. We misjudge, act outside our values and harm them and, of course, we feel guilty.
But for some parents, guilt becomes a habitual thought pattern. A distorted lens through which you see yourself. A chronic condition that isn’t even connected to any particular decision or action you took, but just sits like a weight at the bottom of your heart. Parenting guilt that’s constant and heavy can end up driving your parenting choices and have serious impacts on both you and your child.
Guilt-ridden parents are stuck in their pain and it often makes them unable to recognize it as guilt so they unwittingly act out what is going on internally for them. This might look like:
Feeling like a failure, hopeless, powerless. For example, “I ruined it. I’m a terrible parent. My kids don’t listen to me, so there’s no point trying.”
Taking responsibility for their kid’s behaviour. “It’s my fault he’s dishonest — I allowed him to get away with too much when he was younger. Her grades are bad because I didn’t study with her enough.”
Making dramatic pleas, threats.
Blaming the child (yes, there goes the guilt cycle).
Withdrawing. “Fine. Don’t come whining to me when it blows up in your face.”
Being afraid to set boundaries and implement consequences. “I know we’ll just fight and I don’t want to lose what connection we have.”
Seeking emotional reassurance from their children. “Am I doing a terrible job of parenting you?”
Erk. I’d have to raise my hand for a few of those… What about you? It’s ok. We screw up.
8 Ways to Ease you Parenting Guilt
Recalibrate your expectations: In case no one has told you this, you cannot do everything. There will be parts of the parenting job that you don’t know how to do, that you’re not equipped for or that you don’t have time or energy for. This is real for All. Of. Us. So, take a close look at what you’re expecting of yourself (or what you’re assuming others are expecting) and make some adjustments so it’s reasonable and practicable. Why set yourself up for feeling guilty? Recalibrate your expectations and accept the limits of what you can do.
Take responsibility for your behaviour, not theirs: If your kid fails their driving test or loses their job, let them be accountable for that. Of course, if you did something that directly caused this, then make your reparations. But stop yourself if you’re scolding yourself for not helping them more. Not foreseeing what they’d have difficulty with, consider what they might be learning right now about asking for help when they need it or fulfilling all the tasks of their job. And remember, a child who is used to someone taking responsibility for them will find it hard, as an adult, to deal with life’s ups and downs and, instead, tend to look for a scapegoat.
Identify the inner dialogue: Pay attention to the automatic thoughts that accompany your feelings of guilt. Is it, “I should have been able to foresee that… I said the wrong thing… I’m a bad parent…” Whatever those thoughts are, say them out loud, record them on your phone or write them down. The only way to get out from under this guilt is to learn exactly how it plays out in you.
Reframe those thoughts: The simplest reframe I know is changing the tone of self-admonishments. I mean, there are many ways of saying to yourself, “Wow, you messed that up.” I used to hear that in the voice of Mrs. Woykin, my very stern Grade 2 schoolteacher — yikes. When I changed it into the voice of a friend, it changed my whole relationship with shame. Try it.
Avoid comparisons: Comparing yourself to other parents is a fruitless exercise. No one is parenting perfectly — not even the parenting ‘experts.’ You’ve probably noticed someone who does a really great job with one kid and ends up having a rough ride with the next. We are unique individuals, raising unique children — there is no ‘right’ way, no ‘best’.
Count to Five: When you catch yourself in the moment feeling guilty or about to take on blame for your child, count to five. That little pause, that single breath, means you’re probably going to do something different from your first impulse. Hooray, change is afoot.
Stay out of the parent-blaming game: It starts when your toddler has a tantrum in the grocery store and it keeps going — we tend to blame parents when their child is acting out, overweight, using drugs, getting poor grades, in trouble with the law, etc. Can we please stop doing this? Instead, can we be open-minded and compassionate toward people who are struggling with parenting? And this may be harder, can you have that same open-mindedness and compassion for yourself when you’re the one who’s struggling?
Build a support system: Because of all the judgement out there, it’s common for families of ‘troubled’ kids to pull away from others to protect themselves. Unfortunately, this isolation does nothing to remove guilt and actually magnifies feelings of failure. So, reach out to people you can trust. Let’s normalize talking about the real stuff.
So many parents talk about having a painful childhood and wanting to give their kids something better. And it’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at your children’s lives through the lens of your pain.
A pain-free youth is an illusion and an unwise goal.
I’ve worked with parents who tried so hard to protect their child from pain, only to see their overprotectiveness cause other struggles for their child. And parents who let their kids grow up ‘free range’ who later saw the pain it caused their kids in trying to find an anchor. And kids who spent so much time assuaging their parent’s guilt that they developed their own guilt complex. In my experience, while you try to save your kid from one kind of pain, you can’t help but leave the door open for another.
We are complex human beings, unpredictable and contradictory, but also resilient and capable of change. We are built for the struggle of creating a life, and so are our kids. They have a right to create their own life story, a story that can only be written by facing challenges and disappointments and making and learning from mistakes.
You are not to blame for those challenges and disappointments. You are not a terrible parent if your kid gets into dumb stuff. You are not accountable for their mistakes.
Your role is walk alongside them, giving your steady love and guidance as they write the story that only they can write.
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