How to deal with parent guilt

Parents everywhere agonise in secret: “Where did I go wrong? Will my child be damaged because of what I did, or because of what I failed to do?” Gone are the ancestral days when a casual attitude to children’s feelings left our forebears largely untroubled by what happened to a child. Guilt weighs all the more heavily now that so many of us have plumbed the depths of what felt “toxic” about our own childhoods. We are the first generation to be vowing, en masse, not to do it like parents of the past did.

We worry about how we rate as parents, how our actions will affect our kids. So painful is this festering guilt, you tend to keep it buried as a conversation you have with yourself in the quiet of the night. Rarely do we show one another how out to sea, out of control and vulnerable we sometimes feel. The result: most of us tend to live in an illusory world where parents all around us look like they’re coping so much better than you are, and you are alone with your quirks, pitfalls, ill-temperedness and embarrassing lapses in attentiveness.

The hard fact is that every parent will sometimes, without necessarily realising it or intending it, cause their child pain. In one way or another, each one of us is wounded and our own role models were imperfect. You cannot quarantine your children from your own humanly limited abilities to care and respond. Sooner or later, in every parenting relationship, there is call for remorse, making amends and even apology.

Though it makes you uncomfortable, your babies and children have every right to protest against you when you let them down. As a society, we make claims about children’s “resilience”, but do we ourselves have the ego-resilience to hear them out when they point squarely at our parental lapses? The first step is to look at what guilt actually is.

This thing called guilt

Guilt and remorse are very different; in fact, they are opposites in some ways. Remorse is about the other: it is about allowing their feelings and listening with empathy, and it is about the desire and effort to repair any hurt you may have caused.

Guilt, on the other hand, is self-focused and it’s about beating yourself up. Hand in hand with guilt is the fear of retribution. Guilt gnaws at your guts while it tells you, “Look what you’ve done. What kind of a parent are you? You should have known better!” As a pre-emptive measure against the judgment of your peers, guilt strikes the first blow against you. As guilt becomes hard to bear, it cloaks itself in denial with rationalisations like “Oh, I’m sure he’ll be all right. She is resilient. Those are just crocodile tears.”

True remorse in action builds love; it heals. It is the very thing that allows you to move on and let go. Guilt, on the other hand, is a blind alley that keeps you stuck and alienates your children from you. Though it is a natural and universal human reaction, it is one of the most corrosive of all emotional states and it does nothing to help relationships grow.

The good news is, the key to letting go of guilt may be simply a question of perspective. If you sometimes agonise with parent-guilt, here are a few fresh ways of looking at yourself and your relationships that might bring you some release.

All parents are learners

Most parents feel they should be able to handle parenting better than they do and then become disappointed in themselves when parenting feels harder than they expected. If this is true for you, ask yourself how you came to expect so much from yourself.

Sometimes it helps to see yourself in a larger context. How expert should we be as parents? Most people seem to assume that humans have always raised their children in the same way, in happy and loving families. The truth is, the further back you look in history, the harsher and more neglectful parenting was — and this is true of a majority of the world’s civilisations.

As modernity has gathered pace, the evolution of parenting has accelerated. Corporal punishment, for instance, is fast disappearing. Yesterday’s spanking is today’s smack on the wrist (in Australia, that is). In grandma’s day it was the wooden spoon and in the 19th century flogging was normal. Today, it is illegal in 23 countries (including New Zealand) for a parent to smack or in any way strike a child. A further 25 nations are preparing to introduce this law and the list is growing rapidly towards worldwide prohibition.

So the commitment to treating children respectfully is a surprisingly recent innovation. International awareness about child abuse first came into being when a concerned American paediatrician coined the term “battered child syndrome” in 1962. Before then, violence against children was not deemed to warrant public scrutiny.

Most of the current generation of parents were protected, fed, clothed and educated by devoted and loving carers, but few could say their emotional needs, as babies and toddlers, were deeply and consistently met. As the next rung on the social-evolutionary ladder, we seem to be the first generation (or two) to concern ourselves en masse with children’s emotional health.

Ask your parents how it felt for them to be a child — and, if your grandparents are still around, ask them the same question. You’ll probably find, too, when you ask them about their own style of parenting that most (though not all) would have fed their babies under strict schedules and routinely left them to “cry it out”. Most would have used corporal punishment liberally. By the same token, most of them would have been caned themselves at school and experienced much harsher conditions than we allow today. This is our psychological heritage.

Collectively, we are beginners, trying to heal ourselves while creating a new model for empathic parenting. For sure, we all have blind spots and as parents we occasionally stumble. Some of us are good at empathy but have trouble asserting strong boundaries. Some can be very assertive as parents but at times lack sensitivity. Some of us seem to relate better to toddlers than to babies, or vice versa. Nevertheless, because of the new emphasis on healthy emotional development around the world, an opportunity exists to create a new society through our honest efforts to grow as parents.

You are not alone

The supportive village that all parents need is largely missing from our culture. Parenting is done in private and many parents have almost never touched a baby until they have their own.

The more anthropologists and social scientists understand about human parents, the more emphatically they conclude we were designed to raise children in small, co-operative groups, not in nuclear families. Parenting is meant to take place where help is always at hand, in a collective setting where even the children begin rehearsing child-rearing skills from a young age. By the time an adolescent reaches adulthood in such a society, he or she is already thoroughly familiarised with how to care for children of all ages.

When you find yourself struggling, not knowing what to do with your child, you risk blaming yourself unless you ask yourself these two questions: Do I have all the support I deserve? Did my elders show me how to interact with babies, toddlers and children?

Here is one of the most important ideas that all parents should understand: parenting is not meant to be as hard as it feels for most people. The main reason we struggle, why our patience runs short, is that our nuclear-family situation is entirely unnatural, unreasonable and unsustainable. The fact that it is normal does not mean it’s healthy. No parent is meant to be at home alone with one or more children; it is nature’s design to always have a fresh pair of hands nearby that we can turn to long before tiredness becomes exhaustion.

So, the next time you find yourself reacting impatiently towards your child — and then recoiling in guilt — tell yourself this is a sign that you do not have enough support as a parent. If your extended family is not available, you might like to, for instance, join one of the many natural parenting groups in your area, or form your own. Consider this an essential, not a luxury. Reaching out to and hanging out with other like-minded parents can be very rewarding while saving you and your child a lot of anguish.

Compassion instead of guilt

There is one last reason why sometimes we don’t respond to our children in the most appropriate way. Next time your child’s behaviour presses your buttons until you respond in a regrettable way, take a few moments to look inward. Try to recall how you were treated when you behaved in similar ways when you were about the same age. Remember how that felt from the inside, in the body of a child.

In most cases, when you give your child less than the patience and sensitivity he or she deserves, this springs from a deep emotional wound dating back to your own childhood. In the course of my work, many parents have shared with me some deep regret about how, at one time or another, they have disappointed their children. A journey into their own childhood memories is always ripe with revelation, shedding new light on their own reactions and replacing guilt with compassion for themselves.

Two benefits reward the self-inquiring parent: one is the relief from guilt that reconnecting with inner-child feelings can bring. The other is how this opens your heart even more towards your own children.

When you do something that wounds those you most cherish, this is a signal that something in yourself wants healing. It is not a time to beat yourself up. Certainly, if your child is upset, he or she needs your help, perhaps even your apology — and you should give these freely.

Parenting does not improve simply because you avail yourself of better-quality information and advice. What most transforms your relationship with your children is the inner work: your willingness to learn, heal and grow. We are all familiar with the edict: “Physician, heal thyself!” Here’s a new one for us all: “Parents, parent yourselves!”

The benefit of releasing guilt

A healthy, emotionally secure child will spontaneously protest when feeling hurt by you or disappointed in you — and won’t speak too elegantly, either! For toddlers it’s usually something along these lines: “You’re a bad mummy! You’re a silly daddy!” It will no doubt be something a little more colourful when it’s a teenager airing discontent.

I don’t favour any parent accepting verbal attacks from their children. However, unless we listen empathically and validate children’s feelings, healing and renewal cannot take place. Here’s why release from parent-guilt is vital for the flow of love between you and your children: it’s only when you are not in the throes of guilt, shame or inadequacy that you seem to have the spaciousness to respect your children’s right to protest.

Intact self-esteem is what makes us strong enough to really hear our children when they say: “Dad, you let me down. Dad, you hurt me. Mum, you didn’t listen.” A fair hearing is a gift, because only once feelings are heard and validated can love come back and allow us to move on. Children don’t harbour grudges in the way adults can. Their resentment vanishes the moment they feel heard and, next thing you know, you’re being told you’re the best parent in the world.

Guilt or shame can lead you to stifle your child’s attempts at relationship repair. When they vent their grievances, you turn away. You deny or downplay their feelings and this makes them feel unimportant. Your guilt makes you defensive and hard to talk to.

When parent guilt is replaced by emotional honesty, it is as if the sun rises again for the whole family. Relationships become far more pleasurable and laughter returns to the household. Your child does not want you to grovel, to beg forgiveness, to put yourself down or diminish yourself in any way. All he or she wants is acknowledgment, a truthful recognition of what you did or did not do and how this made them feel, and to see that you’re interested in learning and growing.

That’s not so hard. It just involves an open heart, humility and emotional vulnerability. The rewards are well worth it. By the way, if you can do this, you will be amazed how forgiving your children can be towards you.

What makes a “good parent”?

As a father, I have made so many mistakes, been so impatient, irritable and inappropriately pushy at times that, if my self-esteem was based on being a “good dad”, I would be in trouble! So what else should our self-esteem as parents be about? You can redefine what a “good parent” is. It’s not so much about how often you get it right for your children; it’s not about not making mistakes. Good parenting is about a willingness to acknowledge your errors and your lapses in empathy openly and to be humble enough to apologise when necessary. Also, it’s about maintaining an ongoing commitment to learning, healing and growing. If you enjoy your children for who they are and avoid taking yourself too seriously, this goal is well within your grasp.

An integral part of parenting — one few of us were told about in advance — is that sooner or later we wound and disappoint our kids. We love them immeasurably, but we hurt them at times. The reasons for this are legion and it is a painful fact to acknowledge. Usually, we seem to have our parenting blind spots in precisely the areas where we were wounded as children — the very places where we need healing and support ourselves.

These all-too-human limitations do not define our relationships with our children. A loving relationship is not one in which hurt never happens. The most fulfilling relationship with your child is possible when it is regularly renewed through the telling, and hearing, of emotional truths.

Robin Grille is a Sydney-based psychologist, author and parenting educator. The themes of this article are discussed in greater depth in his books: Heart to Heart Parenting (ABC Books), and Parenting for a Peaceful World (Longueville Media). W:

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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