Parental Guilt

Mar 18, 2011

I have received several questions from parents who are questioning their decisions or actions, and therefore feeling very guilty and ashamed. The situations have been very different, from work issues to depression, but the common theme was the “I feel like I am a horrible parent” sentiment. Here are my thoughts.

First, every parent makes mistakes. Every parent looks back at a situation or a decision and wishes it could be done differently. Every parent second guesses themselves and questions if things would be better had a different decision been made. Those flaws, those moments where we cringe in hindsight, provide teachable moments for us and our children. We can learn to forgive ourselves. But, maybe more importantly, we can show our children how to make amends for mistakes. We can give them a clear and real example of how to apologize, how to be honest about when we were wrong, and a lesson in how to repair a relationship that was temporarily broken by our words or actions. We model for our children how the world works, so learning early how to say “I’m sorry” can be a huge blessing.

Second, we have the blessing (and the curse) of realizing that the lives of our kids are overwhelmingly decided upon by us. Where they go, what they wear, how they behave are all contingent on our decisions and beliefs. This can put a lot of stress on parents if they feel that the lives of their kids could be better. The situation in the home, including finances, relationships, work, illness, etc., shapes children. Kids are a product of their upbringing. However, the pressure is undue to provide a perfect life. Children have only experienced what they have experienced, and know no other way. So, if you have always struggled with finances, your children’s only frame of reference for how the world works is that people struggle to pay their bills. You know otherwise, but thankfully until adolescence, kids do not.

Third, parents have an emotional tie to actions and thoughts. In other words, when adults drop a child off at daycare and feel guilty about going to work, abstract reasoning kicks in. We question if it is the right decision, wonder if the child would be happier at home, feel that we are letting our kid down by not spending every minute with him. The emotional weight of thoughts can be overwhelming. In contrast, a child lives in the here and now. There is no concept of the bigger world that involves others’ thoughts, feelings or actions. Further, there is no emotional tie to the choice that was made. “This is what I am doing right now” is as far as a child thinks, until an emotional vocabulary and communication can be established.

Finally, children love their parents regardless of situation, circumstance or issue. Of course, that does not give parents the liberty to exploit that love and trust, by acting in intentionally hurtful or inappropriate manners. However, if you are consistently working on becoming the parent that you most want to be, self-reflecting and self-analyzing how you can improve, and acknowledging where you are right on target, that is enough. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and kids don’t expect a perfect parent – just a work-in-progress!


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